The boss of the Pike River Recovery Agency is prepared to suit up and enter the mine's drift himself, and will do so if given the chance.

Former chief of army Dave Gawn has taken on what's been called the worst job in the country, carrying the burden of legal liability if the Government green-lights a recovery team to go into the gaseous drift of the mine.

In an exclusive interview with the Weekend Herald, Gawn says he is very aware of putting recovery workers into a potentially fatal situation.

"I do not expect and never have expected anyone to undertake anything that I wouldn't do myself."

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It's a principle that guided him through a 38-year career in the military, where he held the role of chief of the army from 2013 to 2015, joint forces commander from 2011 to 2013, and land commander of the army from 2007 to 2010.

Does he want to go into the drift himself?

"I'd love to. What you don't want is to force something like that and, if you're not trained, you become a risk to those that are trained. That's unacceptable."

Gwan said he would like to go in if he was fully trained and "it fits within the plan".

The plan Gawn is referring to is the process to develop a re-entry proposal. At its completion, the agency will take a recommendation to Pike River Recovery Minister Andrew Little for sign-off.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, Gawn is legally liable if lives are lost in a recovery mission, even though the decision is ultimately the minister's.

"While there's been lots of talk about how Mr Little will be responsible for his decisions, it will be some poor senior public servant who carries the can," National Party workplace relations spokeswoman Amy Adams has said.

"Why would any sensible person put their hand up for that job?"

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Pike River Recovery Agency chief executive Dave Gawn says he is prepared to suit up and enter the mine's drift himself. Photo / Supplied
Pike River Recovery Agency chief executive Dave Gawn says he is prepared to suit up and enter the mine's drift himself. Photo / Supplied

But Gawn simply counters that the law applies to any chief executive of any agency, public or private.

"The minister is going to make the final determination of whether we go in based on the plan we develop, and that's entirely appropriate, just as it is in military operations, or police, or prisons."

It has been more than seven years since the explosion that ripped through the mine, killing 29 men. Their bodies have never been recovered.

The Government has committed to a manned re-entry of the mine's drift by March 2019, as long as it can be done so safely.

Solid Energy, which is in the process of handing over ownership of the mine to the Crown, has said that a manned re-entry was technically feasible, but could not be done safely.

Some of the mine's obstacles include the crippled integrity of existing roof and wall supports, a lack of full information about the mine's structure, and the risk of rockfall from strata failure, such as a roof collapse.

Solid Energy identified 234 hazards that could lead to the mine filling with air that is not breathable, or exploding from an ignition of flammable gas.

Gawn acknowledges that there is no way to guarantee safety.

"There are no absolutes. There are no absolutes in crossing the road. The key with any chief executive is to ensure the risks are mitigated as far as humanly possible."

Gawn has met with the families of the deceased and says the agency's work is essential to giving closure to the families.

The Pike Families Memorial on Logburn Rd, 15km from the site where 29 miners died. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Pike Families Memorial on Logburn Rd, 15km from the site where 29 miners died. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"That doesn't mean we will necessarily have a successful recovery of the drift, but whatever the outcome is, it will be fully transparent and in conjunction and partnership with the families."

A concern has been whether that close relationship could bias the agency's work.

But the planning process includes a number of checks and balances, including working with WorkSafe and the Mines Rescue Trust, as well as independent third party experts to review the plan.

Little will also consult independent advisor and former Air NZ boss Rob Fyfe before making a final decision.

"There is an expectation [of manned re-entry], and there could be a perception of bias. But I'm not a miner. That in and of itself adds an element of outcome-focus rather than outcome-bias," Gawn said.

Before he was hired, Gawn was waiting to hear about a New York-based job with the UN, monitoring peacekeeping missions around the world. But now there is no other job he would rather have.

"It's one of the most worthwhile jobs. It has a national, historical element. There is a very human element to it.

"It's a tragedy that we need to know about, to gain closure not just for the families, but for the communities of the West Coast, the mining community, and the public of New Zealand."

He has moved to Greymouth for the two-year appointment.

"Greymouth versus New York. It was an easy choice."