Anna Leask

Anna Leask is a police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

A total lack of remorse: Judge to Pike River Coal

29 men died in the Pike River mine disaster. Yesterday the company was ordered to pay $3.41 million - $110,000 for each family. Pike River Coal said it could afford only $5,380 each. Judge Jane Farish called it 'a total lack of remorse'

Anna Osborne (L), Cheryl Griffin (R) and Lynne Sims - who all lost loved ones in the mining disaster - leaving the Greymouth District Court after yesterday's sentencing. Photo / Greymouth Star
Anna Osborne (L), Cheryl Griffin (R) and Lynne Sims - who all lost loved ones in the mining disaster - leaving the Greymouth District Court after yesterday's sentencing. Photo / Greymouth Star

Pike River Coal says there is no cash in its coffers to pay court-ordered compensation to the families of victims of the 2010 mine explosion - despite the personal wealth of its former directors and the assets of its biggest shareholder.

The company was sentenced in the Greymouth District Court yesterday over health and safety failings that led to the deaths of 29 miners in November 2010.

Judge Jane Farish ordered Pike River Coal to pay a total of $3.41 million in reparation - $110,000 for the family of each victim and survivors Russell Smith and Daniel Rockhouse.

She also fined the company a total of $760,000 over nine charges.

Pike River Coal is in receivership and indicated during sentencing that it had only enough money to pay $5000 to each family.

But Judge Farish slammed the claim, and said the company had a "total lack of remorse".

"It is not often a company steps back and holds its hands up and says, 'I have nothing'," she said.

"Even a company in a fragile state usually comes forward and offers reparation, but here nothing has been forthcoming."

Judge Farish also indicated that Pike's biggest secured shareholder, NZ Oil and Gas (24.9 per cent), was in a position to pay reparation. Last August, NZ Oil and Gas posted a full-year profit of $19.9 million.

"I am satisfied the company has the means to pay either by existing shareholders or a combination of the shareholders and directors. I note that the directors have significant insurance."

Last night, Pike River receiver John Fisk said it was impossible for the firm to comply with Judge Farish's order.

It had $2 million worth of liability insurance, but after legal fees were paid, just $156,000 - or about $5380 a family - was still available for compensation payments, he said.

"There's a cold hard sort of commercial and legal reality as to what we're dealing with here as receivers and then the tragic situation of the death of 29 men in a workplace accident. That does come into stark contrast in these situations."

Mr Fisk did not know what Judge Farish meant when she said there was the "means" for reparation to be paid.

"I'm at a loss to know where she thought that could be paid from. Unfortunately they won't be able to get anything out of the company."

The directors at the time of the tragedy were John Dow, Stuart Nattrass, Raymond Meyer, Roy Radford, Arun Jagatramka, Dipak Agarwalla, Surendra Sinha and Sanjay Loyalka. None were charged over the tragedy.

Lawyers for Mr Dow, Mr Nattrass and Mr Meyer said it was "not accepted" that Pike River was not forthcoming in terms of offering funds to help the victims' families.

They said a total of $1 million was contributed to funds set up to benefit the families "very shortly after" the explosion.

The Weekend Herald can reveal that Mr Dow is the director of four companies, and owns four properties in Nelson and Whangaparaoa totalling $3,525,000. The most expensive is valued at $1,675,000.

Mr Nattrass is listed as a director of eight companies and owns at least five properties in Christchurch and Geraldine worth a total of $8,943,000. According to QV, one of those is in the upmarket Christchurch suburb of Fendalton and has a rateable value of $2,320,000. The property next door, worth $658,000, is also owned by Mr Nattrass.

Of the other directors, Mr Radford owns a luxury home in Sydney which a local real estate website estimated was worth between A$1,469,800 and A$1,657,800.

And Mr Jagatramka, a major player in the Australian mining industry, reportedly spent $5 million on a property in Illawarra.

According to the Illawarra Mercury, he built a two-storey "palace" on the site, boasting an underground carpark and marble flooring imported from India. He held an open day to show off the "opulent" house and invited local personalities and a sports team he sponsors, the newspaper said.

It was unclear last night whether any of the former directors would offer to contribute any of their personal funds towards reparation. None could be contacted for comment.

Through their lawyers, Mr Dow, Mr Nattrass and Mr Meyer acknowledged it had been "an immensely difficult week" for the Pike River families, who had to relive the events of November 2010. They continued to offer their genuine sympathy and condolences.

"Good-faith efforts were made by Pike River men and women in the wake of the explosion to support the families by providing, among other things, family liaison services, distribution of food and other parcels, and regular updates at meetings attended by families and the police," they said.

In April, Pike River Coal was convicted on nine charges of breaching the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

They comprised four of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees, four of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its contractors, subcontractors and their employees in relation to specific activities within the mine and one charge of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of its employees harmed another person.

Judge Farish described the tragedy as "the health-and-safety event of this generation".

"It's hard to imagine one worse," she said. "The hazards were well known and the dangers apparent, but the health-and-safety issues were not given priority."

- additional reporting: Greymouth Star, Hayden Donnell

- NZ Herald

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