Drilling contractor fined $46k over errors

By Tui Bromley of the Greymouth Star

Ben Rockhouse, 21, Josh Ufer, 25, and Joseph Dunbar, 17, who all died in the PIke River mine blast.
Ben Rockhouse, 21, Josh Ufer, 25, and Joseph Dunbar, 17, who all died in the PIke River mine blast.

An Australian contractor which lost three staff members in the Pike River Mine disaster has been fined $46,800 after admitting three breaches of the Health and Safety Act.

VLI, a subsidiary of Sydney-based Valley Longwall International, had Josh Ufer, 25, Ben Rockhouse, 21, and Joseph Dunbar, 17, down the mine at the time of the fatal explosion on November 19, 2010. It was Joseph Dunbar's first day at work.

Each charge carried a maximum fine of $250,000. In Australia, the maximum would be $1.3 million.

The prosecution had asked Judge Jane Farish in Greymouth District Court to consider the victim impact reports from their families but she said that because by definition of law they were not 'actual' victims, the application was declined.

Valley Longwall's chief executive, health and safety manager and human resources manager travelled from Australia for the sentencing.

The charges related to VLI's drill rig being operated without electrical inspections being carried out or being operated while the methane sensors in the mine were not fully functional or properly calibrated.

VLI lawyer Pheroze Jagose said the company had a contractual agreement with Pike River Coal Ltd and it was up to the mining company, not VLI, to ensure that the checks were made.

He said VLI's sole omission was in failing to check that Pike River was completing the inspections.

However, the company had since developed a procedure which requires that a card attached to each machine must be completed before the rig can be started.

The company had admitted charges of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees; failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of contractors, sub-contractors and their employees; and failing to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of its employees harmed another person.

The charges were laid by the former Department of Labour (now Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) and are not linked to the underground explosions that racked the mine for weeks.

Judge Jane Farish put VLI's culpability in the "moderate" range.

She accepted that Pike River was contracted to carry out the safety checks but said VLI should have ensured that the tests had been completed.

"It's not enough to say 'I gave the job to somebody else' - you can't abdicate responsibility."

The judge set the starting point of the fine at $90,000 but discounted by almost half with 10 per cent discounts for VLI's co-operation, the fact that it had made payments to the victims' families, and had drawn up a new safety policy. These brought the fine down to $58,000.

There was a gasp of "oh God" from a family member in the public gallery in court when Judge Farish said she was going to reduce that by 25 per cent for VLI's guilty pleas.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment declined to comment on the sentence today.

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