Gerard Morris: Pike politics ignore families' heartbreak

The PM's expected announcement on plans to pay to bring out the bodies has been a long time coming.

The report into the mine blast devoted minimal space to events in the immediate lead-up to the November 19, 2010 explosion.  Photo / NZPA
The report into the mine blast devoted minimal space to events in the immediate lead-up to the November 19, 2010 explosion. Photo / NZPA

The bristling response from Prime Minister John Key to a seemingly straightforward question from West Coast MP Damien O'Connor in Parliament last week, on the Government's commitment to re-entry at Pike, reeked with indignation that stems from a reversal in roles. Well, maybe.

In 2007, O'Connor was the Minister of Corrections and Key an Opposition MP who wanted O'Connor sacked when Auckland teenager Liam Ashley died in custody in the back of a prison van.

Key is going to Greymouth today to again meet the families.

He is honourably going to officially apologise for the contributing regulatory failures to the tragedy and hopes are high he will confirm a Government-funded recovery process that safely goes into the mine.

Grudges never die in politics, and Key's reaction in Parliament and this further visit to Greymouth today suggest an underlying personal concern that the Government has not honoured its public promises to the families.

Perhaps the new Minister of Labour, the Mr Pragmatism of Cabinet, Chris Finlayson, has had some influence after his meeting with the families last month.

The recent replacement of National list MP Chris Auchinvole as the Government's Pike families liaison with a dedicated Government official and former Telecom troubleshooter is significant.

This may reflect the Cabinet's strategy to keep its distance on this highly complex issue so the political polls aren't impacted.

Having a middleman able to absorb the criticism and stay immune to the moral and emotional elements of the Pike tragedy makes sense politically.

The reality of doing nothing clearly haunts John Key despite his statement that he sleeps easy at night, knowing that he will not allow himself to be responsible for recovery team members risking their lives in the process.

Coasters have finely-tuned political antennae and cynically ask whether the Government response would be more proactive if Auchinvole had not been rolled as the electorate MP by Labour's O'Connor in 2011.

The Royal Commission on Pike River, compassionately led by Reefton-born-and-bred Justice Graham Panckhurst, must have been a relief for the Government in the way it carefully sieved the mountain of evidence and made recommendations that are no-brainers to implement. Its report relies heavily on Australian expertise which possibly dominates the Government's rationale on mine entry options.

Underground mining worldwide is devouring the report as any responsible industry would and the inference is taken that the tragedy at Pike is simply the result of business in New Zealand being run on a number eight wire mentality.

Let us not forget that Pike was designed by Australian mining consultants, managed by Australians and its senior management was a mix of internationals.

Although the report has been widely acclaimed except for the expected roasting by Pike company interests, it devotes minimal space to events in the immediate lead-up to 3.45pm on Friday, November 19, 2010.

The two-volume report does not include a timeline preceding the first explosion that is common in analysis contained in other New Zealand and overseas tragedy reports.

Although the commission identified deficient ventilation management combined with inappropriate electrical machinery underground as the most likely cause of the first explosion, there has been no scene examination in any part of the mine tunnel to confirm or support its assumptions.

Career miners have been able to read the logic of the commission's report and are well qualified to test its assumptions.

The example of the last shotfire and likely impact of the damaged stopping to airflows highlights the practical depth of mining knowledge available to the families, a detail bypassed in the report.

The last shotfire at 1.30pm in the stone floor to form a sump near the ventilation shaft was not far from the fluming pump that was coincidently restarted at 3.45pm, the time of the first explosion.

The commission has estimated a huge amount of methane, around 5000cu m, equivalent to 70 large shipping containers in the hydro goaf, the coal extraction face, some distance away.

The blast at 1.30pm demolished the temporary stopping behind the blast site which was designed to ensure the mine's fresh air flow was not compromised.

Evidence at the commission highlighted that this was a regular occurrence as the temporary stopping was flimsy.

This contract crew luckily left the mine early around 3.30pm by Driftrunner, picking up two very lucky surveyors en route. The afternoon shift was scheduled to work on to later that night, some miners to 2.30am.

Also by sheer luck, the blasting crew's replacement team had not entered the mine as they were due to start at 4pm.

The downstream effect of the last shotfire in Pike indirectly short circuiting the ventilation flows is not analysed in the report.

While the shotfire did not directly cause the first explosion, as found by the commission and agreed by experienced miners, the miners say the fresh air flow would have been compromised badly and likely allowed methane to accumulate at the underground fluming pump site not far away, considering the commission's estimate of such a huge amount of methane estimated to be circulating in the mine from the face.

The underground fluming pump motor and starter was not fully flame-proofed.

When the pump was coincidently restarted at 3.45pm at the control desk on the surface, the rest is tragedy.

The practical analysis of the commission's far reaching report is surely reason enough for the views of the families and their spokesman, Bernie Monk, and their UK mining advisers, to be treated seriously with their mine entry plans.

While the rest of New Zealand understandably has Pike on mute having absorbed the aftermath of the deadly Christchurch earthquakes and the Rena grounding over the past two years, the Pike families, Greymouth and its ongoing sea of grief, need to be treated more humanely by the Government.

After all, the Government has stumped up $1.7 billion to sort the debris from the South Canterbury Finance saga, where many of the affected depositors were National-supporting farmers, and up to $19 million for the Rena clean-up in the National stronghold of Tauranga.

Why then is it so hard for them to appease the Pike families with a credible effort to enter the mine tunnel?

Political points scoring should not be seen to be getting in the way.

Gerard Morris is a former coal mining journalist and has co-authored two books on West Coast mining history. Three members of his family worked at the Pike River Mine and luckily escaped the November 2010 tragedy.

- NZ Herald

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