Prime Minister Bill English says the health and safety changes made in response to the Pike River mine disaster mean the Government would be going against its own laws if it approved re-entry into the coal mine.
English said the safety reforms, which followed a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 2010 disaster, meant there were strict legal requirements about painting a one-storey house, let alone entering a potentially volatile coal mine.
The Government is under renewed pressure from Pike River families to prevent state-owned coal miner Solid Energy from permanently sealing the mine on the South Island's West Coast and preventing re-entry to its drift. The families presented a new report from international mining experts today which said the mine could be safe to re-enter and that a new independent entity should be set up to oversee the project.
The mine has been closed since November 2010 after a gas explosion killed 29 workers.
In his first Question Time as Prime Minister, English was challenged by Labour leader Andrew Little on why he was "ignoring the families' pleas" to get back into the mine.
English said Pike River was the "most dangerous workplace in New Zealand", and approving a re-entry would go against the very health and safety laws passed by Parliament in response to the disaster.
English said Little himself had lobbied for the safety changes.
"The member should understand the legislation which he advocated for, which brings together judgement about safety and legal responsibility for anyone in that workplace.
"So whatever any independent expert says, someone who is responsible for anyone who might go into that mine are legally responsibly for their lives."
He added: "The member seems to not understand that right now there's people putting up scaffolding around one-storey houses because that is what the law requires by the employers of painters to ensure the risks are mitigated.
"If he thinks they go to that trouble to fulfil their legal responsibilities, imagine what effort would have to be made to go to the trouble of protecting a single person from every danger in that mine."
OPPOSITION COMMITS TO RE-ENTRY
The victims' families held a protest outside Parliament this afternoon.
Speaking to the crowd, Little promised that a Labour Government would get an independent assessment of the mine and re-enter it if it was declared safe. It would be "one of the first things we will do", he said.
"I've seen your report, I've seen the plan, I've heard from other experts myself, and they all tell me it is possible to go down that drift safely to have a look."
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters went further and committed to re-entering the mine if in Government. A former miner in Australia in the 1970s, he even said he would be the first to enter the drift.
"I am that confident in the expert advice that you have that I'm offering to be on the first party back in."
That prompted English to say Peters was trivialising the disaster.
The Prime Minister agreed to grant the families a meeting, possibly before Christmas.
"But I must emphasize that any decision to re-enter the mine isn't a political decision," he said. "It's a decision about the safety of the mine."
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the only way families would be granted access to the mine was under a new Government.
'IT'S NOT RIGHT'
Anna Osborne, who lost husband Milton in the mine, said after six years the "momentum of the nation" was behind the families of the dead.
"Twenty-nine men just can't go to work one day and not come home to their families. It's not right. It's not what New Zealand does."
Holding the new report in her hand, she said it provided a credible plan by international experts to re-entering the mine.
She said any re-entry would focus on the 2.3km drift, which the experts said could be accessed without putting anyone at risk.
"We as families don't want someone to twist their ankle, let alone lose a life. We don't want anyone to lose a life going in to get our guys' remains."
Osborne later sat in the public gallery as English was faced questions about the mine.
The new report was written by David Creedy, a vice chair of the UN Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane and former UK Principal Mines Inspector Bob Stevenson. It was peer-reviewed by two mining experts.
It said technical advisors to the victims' families "remain convinced" the mine could be entered safely.
This would be done by ventilating the 2.3km drift in stages, a few hundred metres at a time. Nitrogen would be pumped into the drift, forcing the methane to rise to the roof and escape through ventilation boreholes until the methane levels were reduce to 1 per cent.
"The key factor is that no person will enter the drift until a fresh air atmosphere has been established and measures are in place to control major hazards," the authors said.
The authors said they accepted Solid Energy would not agree to their proposal. Therefore, only direct Government intervention could decide the outcome.
"It would appear that re-entry would only proceed if SENZ no longer had any responsibility for the mine.
"A new ownership structure will therefore be required to allow the re-entry to proceed."
The report said changing conditions, including more stable gas concentrations, had simplified access to the mine. Re-entry to the drift would allow detailed examination of the mine and could help prevent further tragedies, the authors said.
"There is no technical mining reason that re-entry into Pike River Drift could not be achieved safely," the authors concluded.
"A detailed plan should be delivered to deliver such a result."
Bernie Monk, a spokesman for the victims, said if the plan went ahead it would require Government funding. The total cost was not known.
"I am quite prepared to set our own trust up and do it ourselves. But we need the Government's support here."