Morgan Tait

Morgan Tait is the NZ Herald's consumer affairs reporter.

Angry Pike River families denounce report

Mo one at the old Department of Labour or Ministry of Economic Development will be held accountable, families of the workers were told last night. Photo / File
Mo one at the old Department of Labour or Ministry of Economic Development will be held accountable, families of the workers were told last night. Photo / File

Upset families of the 29 men killed at Pike River "cannot accept" findings of a report that absolves government employees of any blame for the 2010 tragedy.

Despite "systemic failures" and "inactions" that contributed to the Pike River Mine disaster, no one at the old Department of Labour or Ministry of Economic Development will be held accountable, families of the workers were told last night.

The report was highly critical of both departments and prompted an apology to the families - but their spokesman, Bernie Monk, called it hollow and said there should be accountability.

"There are some really upset families here, they are pretty angry about it. We lost 29 men and no one's going to be held accountable."

Mr Monk said it was refreshing to hear the departments admit fault, but it was not enough. "I just can't accept it, I'm sorry. I'd love to move on but I know my son would love us to go and get him and that's what we want to do."

Mr Monk told Newstalk ZB this morning that the families were upset by the lack of accountability.

"And that's one of the most hurtful things."

He did not accept it was a systemic failure with no individuals at fault.

"And it's up for us to make a change to that, and the families have been working along these lines - not only in mining, but helping the systems be put in place, so families like ourselves don't have to put up with these hardships and heartache that we've had to put up with over the last two years."

Mr Monk said the changes in the report gave him hope.

"Very much so. I think that Pike River's opened the gates for everything to happen and to change. It's a legacy that's going to be left from the men underground, and so it will go on," he said.

"It's easy to walk away from these sort of things down the track - we're two years on, nearly three years on, and it's still raw ... and I think we will get these changes, there's no doubt about that."

The families were also shown footage from a camera put down the mine last Friday, and told a report would be presented to the mine's owners, Solid Energy, by the end of next month addressing how the bodies might be recovered.

Officials from the former government departments, now part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, met the families in Greymouth to discuss the report.

It said that despite a "light-handed and perfunctory" approach to health and safety regulation at the mine, an employment investigation was not warranted.

Ministry chief executive David Smol said the breadth of failures outlined in the report was "sobering," and apologised to families of the dead men.

"I accept the findings and apologise again to the Pike River families for these failures," he said. "We must ensure we have learned" from the tragedy.

Engineering, printing and Manufacturing Union assistant national secretary Ged O'Connell said he didn't believe any individuals would be held to account for the tragedy.

"The comments that are made, like missed opportunities, inactions, failure to use the power, the department failed to resource, manage and support. So who is responsible for those actions?

"In this report it seems to whitewash the management or the people who were responsible. It doesn't talk about them," he told Radio New Zealand.

The report should have named those in government who made decisions to deregulate the mining industry in the early 1990s, "because the reality is, those actions were the ones that led some 20 years later to the deaths of 29 men, and others obviously," he said.

The families of the men who died were justified in being upset at the report, "that suggests no one's being held accountable", he told RNZ.

Mr O'Connell praised efforts by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment in the area of regulation in the industry.

Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said there were no surprises in the report.

"The Department of Labour way back in 1998 lit the fuse and it was really a ticking time bomb from that point on," he told TVNZ's Breakfast.

"They only had two inspectors in there, and those two inspectors were charged with covering up to 1000 coal mines and quarries throughout New Zealand. That was totally unacceptable."

Mr Kokshoorn said the two inspectors could not cover the area they were allocated.

"But the whole department overall were complacent; they have a culture of really covering their butt. As long as they weren't responsible where the buck could stop back at them, it was really a case of that would do them.

"They should have actually had checks and balances in place to make sure safety was adhered to. Health and safety, the whole issue here was really put out the back door and the inevitable happened in the end."

Mr Kokshoorn said the report would lead to checks and balances that "won't let this happen again".

Neville Rockhouse, a former Pike River health and safety manager - and father of Ben who died in the tragedy - said he was disappointed with the report.

In particular, it didn't provide answers about failures in the days after the explosion, he told Radio New Zealand.

"Bearing in mind it was specifically from an employment law perspective, but nevertheless ... the scope of the report didn't really go into the areas that family members had hoped it would have - individual accountability for some of the decisions that were made at Pike in those first few days with a department that was very risk adverse," he said.

"It's all too simple to throw your hands up in the air and say it's a systemic failure and no one's accountable for anything."

Pike River's legacy would be to change the way tragedies are responded to, Mr Rockhouse said.

The report will be of no comfort to the families who lost loved ones as no individuals were found accountable, said Labour MPs Darien Fenton and Damien O'Connor.

"What this report shows is the folly of a hands-off approach to the mining sector, and health and safety in particular. The market cannot be left to its own devices when lives are at stake," said Mr O'Connor, Labour's West Coast MP.

He said the families of the Pike River victims were understandably frustrated and angry.

The report found the department's performance as health and safety regulator was ineffectual and dysfunctional, he said.

"So being told no individuals were at fault will be a tough pill to swallow.

Labour Party labour issues spokeswoman Darien Fenton said the report confirmed the Department of Labour and the Government failed the mine workers at Pike River.

"The light-handed approach to regulation of mining was a tragic mistake, and must be urgently addressed.

"The government needs to fast-track the implementation of the Royal Commission's recommendations - including the establishment of a dedicated health and safety regulator," Ms Fenton said.

"Instead, the government is dragging the chain. It plans to take nearly a year to get the new health and safety structure in place.

"In the meantime workers are left relying on an under-resourced system where restructuring and job losses have become the norm. That is just reckless."

The findings

• An independent report was ordered to see if any staff of the old Department of Labour and Ministry of Economic Development were to blame for the 2010 mining disaster that killed 29 men.

• It found that despite systemic failures from both agencies - which were responsible for granting Pike River's mining permits and regulating its health and safety - no individual employees were at fault.

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