Pike River Coal accused back in court

By Viv Logie of the Greymouth Star

Peter Whittall. Photo / NZPA, The Press
Peter Whittall. Photo / NZPA, The Press

Lawyers for former Pike River Coal head Peter Whittall are considering applying to have some of the charges against him dropped because of the timeframe in which they were laid.

Whittall is one of three parties facing Department of Labour charges relating to the deaths of 29 men in the Pike River Mine disaster.

They are expected to plea at their next court appearance, in Greymouth in March.

Lawyers for Whittall, Pike River Coal Ltd (in receivership) and Australian company VLI Drilling appeared in Greymouth District Court this morning for a procedural hearing.

There was a strong media presence but none of the defendants appeared.

Whittall's lawyer Paul Radich asked that consideration be given to moving his trial to Wellington, as Whittall now lived there.

The parties face a total of 26 charges which are varied. However, two of them specify the youngest victim, 17-year-old Joseph Ray Dunbar.

VLI Drilling Pty Ltd is charged with failing to ensure the safety of Mr Dunbar, while Pike River Coal Ltd is also charged in connection with his death, specifically failing to record and audit the conditions of the ventilation control devices.

The other charges vary but some relate to a lack of explosion mitigation, lack of ventilation and/or methane management, and a failure to delay an increase in the width of a coal extraction panel until the geology was properly investigated.

VLI faces three charges and Pike River Coal Ltd nine. Whittall faces four charges alone, and eight jointly with his former employer.

Department of Labour lawyer Brent Stanaway told the court that today's hearing was simply a callover remand.

"This will enable the (Department of Labour) to make full disclosure to all parties - and that disclosure will be substantial.''

Judge Emma Smith said she was satisfied there had been progress with the case, which she adjourned until March, noting that "pleas are expected''.

Outside the court, a second lawyer for Whittall, Stacey Shortall, said he would be fully defending all charges.

His legal team was working hard on the case and if they believed it necessary they would make an application for some of the charges to be dropped because of the timeframe in which they were laid.

"We are looking into this extensively and will make an application at the appropriate time.''

Commenting on the controversy over his new mining consultancy business, she said he had only registered a company.

"Mr Whittall is one of a number of senior management people from Pike River who no longer works for Pike River - others are working elsewhere, Mr Whittall is unemployed and somewhere along the line he needed to look for employment - he has a family to support.''

He was sorry if his registration of the company offended anyone - "it was unintentional''.

- APNZ

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