Pike River mine a 'ticking time bomb'

Bernie Monk, family spokesman for Pike River mine victims, says a series of allegations levelled at the company during the Royal Commission of Inquiry have shown the mine was a
Bernie Monk, family spokesman for Pike River mine victims, says a series of allegations levelled at the company during the Royal Commission of Inquiry have shown the mine was a

A series of allegations levelled at Pike River Coal Ltd (PRC) during the first week of the Royal Commission of Inquiry have shown the mine was a "ticking time bomb", says the father of one of the 29 men who died in November's explosion.

A series of experts have told the inquiry since Monday that PRC had insufficient knowledge of the geology of the mine, ignored the advice of mine experts, overestimated its profitability and underestimated safety risks.

Successive governments - in particular National-led governments in the 1990s - have also come in for severe criticism, with experts attacking changes made to mine safety regulations and the way mines were inspected.

Spokesman for the families of those killed Bernie Monk, whose son Michael Monk died underground, told NZPA that when combined these problems meant the mine was a "ticking time bomb".

The commission started its work on Monday amid heavy rain, hail and thunder storms, which at times could be heard loudly in the court.

Throughout the week the families of the 29 men who died, all wearing yellow ribbons, presented a united front entering and leaving the court room together.

It did not take long for serious accusations to be made against PRC with Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder saying on Monday the tragedy should not have been able to occur in modern mining.

"Modern mining is very complex, but incidents like this, with catastrophic consequences, shouldn't be able to occur in modern mining," Dr Elder said.

He said insufficient planning, financial under-performance, and a lack of knowledge of the "complex" geology on the West Coast all had the potential to add to safety risks.

The next day under vigorous cross-examination from Stacey Shortall, counsel for PRC, Dr Elder was accused of trying to "talk down the price" of PRC's assets ahead of a future purchase.

On Wednesday leading geologist Jane Newman said she was so concerned about PRC's lack of understanding about the geology of the mine that she warned her husband not to visit the mine in August 2010.

Two former chief inspectors of coal mines then brought in to question the way the mines are inspected and changes made to mining regulations in the 1990s.

"The explosion at Pike River mine...had its origins in the repealing of the Coal Mining Act and regulations in 1993," Robin Hughes said.

Both Mr Hughes and a second former chief inspector, Harry Bell, criticised the decision to absorb the coal mining inspectorate in to the Department of Labour.

"The inspectorate changed from being a active and expert participant in coal mining safety to a reactive and substantially less well qualified organisation," Mr Hughes said.

Mr Bell said he had warned the Department and Labour to "stop them (PRC) bloody mining until they fix the ventilation".

The week ended with the Department of Conservation (DOC) saying that PRC was "slow" to develop the mine and had planned to build a second ventilation shaft from the mine as early as 2005. A second ventilation shaft was never built.

"Often the work set out in the annual work plans was not completed within the period of the work plan," DOC concessions community relations officer Craig Jones said.

"Provision for a second ventilation shaft and emergency exits are examples of this."

At 1pm today commission chair Justice Graham Panckhurst, adjourned the hearing until Monday.

Next week Pike River Coal chief executive at the time, Peter Whittall, is due to give evidence to the commission.

Mr Monk said the families were happy with the progress the commission was making and everything was being made public.

He said he hoped the commission ensured the disaster was not repeated.

"I wish to God we knew before the accident happened."

The hearings have been broken up into four phases.

Beginning on Monday and ending on July 22, the first phase focuses on New Zealand's regulatory environment and the geography, approval and development of the mine.

- NZPA

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