NZ HERALD EDITORIAL - COMMENT:
There was never much doubt the present Government would grant the wish of Pike River families to re-enter the mine as far as that may be done safely.
The previous Government was advised it could not be done safely but evidently that is now not so, though the re-entry plan announced yesterday looks not very different in its essentials. Sealed chambers in the mine access tunnel will allow the air to be stabilised, possibly as far as a rockfall more than two kilometres from the entrance.
The mine proper in which 29 men were killed, descends from a point some way beyond the rockfall. The families' hope of recovering any remains depends on the possibility that one or more of them might have been in the tunnel when the mine exploded, as two survivors were.
The fact those two were able to walk out of the mine after the explosion suggests no others were in the tunnel, but for some of the families, as the past eight years have proved, hope springs eternal.
If the re-entry discovers no human remains, there is at least the possibility forensic evidence will be found pointing to the cause of the first explosion and permitting those responsible to be held personally to account at last for 29 deaths.
A royal commission of inquiry produced damning conclusions of the cause of the disaster based on testimony of those who knew the mine, and the mine insurers have made a payout to the families, but it is possible something found in the tunnel will provide a clearer explanation, possibly even an indictable one.
On these remote possibilities the Government is staking $36 million, an extraordinary increase on the $7.2 million plan put to the previous Government just five years ago. And yet the minister in charge, Andrew Little, has obviously chosen the cheapest of three options put to him by the Pike River Recovery Agency.
Like the 2013 plan, this one uses a single entry at the existing portal. The other options involved drilling a small second tunnel or a large additional borehole for ventilation.
The recovery agency has already built airtight seals 30m and 170m along the tunnel and has set up the pump that will drive nitrogen into the chambers to displace the explosive methane that will still be in there.
Little and his recovery agency do not sound sure of what they will be able to do beyond the second chamber only 170m into the 2km tunnel. Little said, "There is a lot we don't know and will not know until we are confronted with the situation as we find it".
He added, "This will require agile thinking, the courage to say if we are uncomfortable, the preparedness to re-assess, reset and re-plan when necessary, and knowing when to call it quits".
Clearly a lot could go wrong. Volatile methane bubbles may not be able to be entirely removed from ceilings of uneven rock. Safety remains the paramount consideration of all involved.
But the families that have been pressing for a re-entry for eight years have been rewarded for their persistence.
They have never sounded hopeful that a recovery effort could get further than the rockfall. They must accept this plan could get that far and find nothing of their loved ones. If nothing else, it surely provides the "closure" they need.