The Herald's energy reporter, who has visited Pike River, reflects on the project's delays, and now disaster
Deep inside the Pike River mine the air is dank, cool and heavy with the smell of cement, used to secure the roof of one of the country's most expensive tunnels.
It's a tough place.
You drive more than 2km in vehicles built like tanks to reach the pit bottom - the utility and coal processing area - and miners go further still to blast and gouge their way through rock five times harder than concrete.
Anyone going underground goes through a 45-minute safety briefing and is issued heavy duty safety equipment including breathing gear, short-duration emergency air and plenty of advice on not panicking if the worst should happen.
During our briefing in 2008, before the project had hit coal, staff also referred to potentially explosive methane gas, which had been found in greater volumes than expected as tunnellers neared a fault deep below the Paparoa Ranges.
A 110m-deep vertical ventilation shaft has since been drilled for the $300 million project that has been dogged by false starts, a rock collapse in the ventilation shaft and the failure to meet over-ambitious timetables.
Before work began it was envisaged the mine would cost around $174 million to develop.
It started shipping coal for steel production in Asia last year, 18 months behind schedule and last week announced its production targets had again been cut after mining machinery problems.
Shareholders including New Zealand Oil & Gas and two Indian companies have been asked to front up several times for extra funding.
Recently appointed chief executive Peter Whittall last week acknowledged targets had been too ambitious in the past.
"Now it's time to be more realistic in our approach and forecast production at rates which we have a realistic chance of achieving."
Mining has just started using hydraulic monitors, large water cannons that blast coal from the face with a jet pumping 9000 litres a minute, expected to take production towards levels promised early on.
Whittall is a hard-driven Australian with 24 years' experience in underground coal mines for BHP in Australia and South Africa before joining Pike River in 2005.
During the Herald's site visit he summed up the risks of mining.
"You never know what you're going to get before you get there."