Six years after a white-hot explosion in the Pike River Mine, some of the families of the deceased are making it very clear they will not rest until an attempt is made to recover what might remain of their loved ones. They appear to have stopped an attempt by the state coal company, Solid Energy, to seal the entrance.
The company has decided it is unsafe to enter. Unconvinced, the families have obtained a report by the vice-chair of the United Nations Group of Experts on Mine Methane, Dr David Creedy, and a former British mines inspector, Bob Stevenson, who believe it possible to at least re-enter the long tunnel, known as the drift, that leads to the mine workings.
They propose pumping nitrogen into the drift that would cause the remaining methane to rise, then bore holes would need to be put down to vent the methane. It sounds like a more practical plan than the one finally abandoned two years ago that involved building walls inside the drift to create chambers for the air in each to be made safe before moving on to the next. That would have cost $7.2 million and would have advanced no further than the rockfall 2.3km along the passage, which has effectively sealed the mine proper.
Two men in the drift at the time of the explosion managed to get out and the families believe some of the 29 killed might also have been making their way to or from the workings. If so, the staged re-entry might have recovered their bodies, though it is doubtful anything recognisable remains after the heat and blast of multiple explosions. Nevertheless, some of the families want the attempt to be made.
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They hope not only to give the bodies a normal burial but also that inspectors would be able to enter a mine their spokesman, Bernie Monk, calls a crime scene. From what a royal commission learned of the operation of Pike River Mine, even without entering it, the mine became an exhibit of what not to do. The disaster led to a drastic tightening of workplace health and safety laws that the new Prime Minister has invoked in response to the families' latest appeal for a re-entry.
Bill English ought not reject the Creedy-Stevenson plan on those grounds. Legislation designed for employment situations surely cannot apply to search and recovery operations after an accident. He ought to have at least met the families when they travelled to Parliament this week.
His cold shoulder has allowed Andrew Little to promise to commission an independent report on the re-entry possibilities if Labour becomes the Government, and Winston Peters to declare he personally would be prepared to go in.
That sort of grandstanding is irresponsible, as are suggestions from others that anyone who argues the mine is safe should be invited to go in, giving a waiver of liability to Solid Energy and the Government. No Government can waive that responsibility. If the mine is to remain closed, and be sealed, it will be done for good reasons. But more information is needed first. An independent assessment commissioned by the Government would be a useful and decent response.