The Government intends exempting itself from the new workplace safety laws and mining regulations put in place following the Pike River Mine tragedy. This is ironically to enable their re-entry project. Politics is over-riding common sense.
The Pike River Mine exploded on November 19, 2010. Two men in the 2.3km tunnel to the mine known as "the drift" survived. The remaining 29 men in the mine workings perished.
The mine repeatedly exploded in the days that followed.
The men are not going to be recovered. There is not going to be any significant new evidence that changes the key conclusions.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry was immediately set up. It cost $10.5 million and reported in November 2012. It concluded the mine was poorly designed and operated and that the Department of Labour failed to properly regulate mine safety.
It specifically criticised the single means of exit. Our Government implemented its recommendations with a new Health and Safety at Work Act (2015), new mining regulations and the new agency, WorkSafe NZ. These new laws rightly now require two means of exit from a mine and better ventilation.
Prime Minister John Key promised to recover the men in the days following the tragedy. Everything possible was done to achieve this. More than $5m was spent pumping nitrogen into the mine and putting men, robots and cameras into the drift.
A comprehensive 800-page report in 2015 concluded recovery of the men could not be done within the new safety laws.
It was heartbreaking telling the families. They initially accepted the advice and requested the Government consider a memorial track through the Paparoa National Park. I got Cabinet agreement and funding of $12m for the new Paparoa Great Walk and Pike29 Track that will open on December 1 this year.
NZ First, Labour and the Greens in Election 2017 exploited the families' disappointment,
insisting the men's remains could be safely recovered. Winston Peters insisted he would be the first to go into the mine. Jacinda Ardern explicitly promised in the Leader's debate: "We've got to deliver to those families their loved ones."
The difference in their promises from that of John Key was by then detailed safety reports said it could not be done.
The new Coalition Government created the Pike River Recovery Agency late in 2017. It has ruled out going beyond the drift to the mine workings where the Royal Commission concluded the men are. It is also unlikely any significant new evidence will be found noting the Royal Commission concluded the explosion was initiated well beyond the drift.
The Budget for the agency has blown out from $23m to $36m and timeframes keep
The issue was re-ignited by mining journalist Gerry Morris revealing in the Greymouth Star on August 21 that the Government intended bypassing the strengthened mine safety regulations. He also called the Government out on making a "political football" of the tragedy.
Pike River Recovery and Justice Minister Andrew Little responded angrily to the article, attacking and belittling Morris in Parliament. However, he confirmed that he would be
seeking the exemption. When asked "Will the workers have access to two exits from the
mine as required by the regulations?" he avoided the question.
The dispute between Little and Morris escalated the next day. Morris sought Little's home address so he could write directly to him. Little responded with a complaint to police that resulted in a late-night visit by armed officers to Morris's home. The Government needs to be careful it does not shoot the messenger.
The Government's extreme sensitivity is due to the Pike River Mine Recovery Project being a defining issue for the Coalition. They choose to politicise the difficult decision National made to accept the technical advice that the men could not be recovered. Their claim that it could be done consistent with the new law has proved to be false.
The reality is there will not be two exits. The explanation that it is not required because the Pike River Mine already has approval dating back to 2008 defies belief. This approval was deficient and was harshly criticised by the Royal Commission. The exemption is being sought because the ventilation in the mine does not meet the new regulations.
This mine blew up because commercial pressures to produce coal saw safety rules compromised. We risk a repeat under political pressure. If the regulations are too rigid, revise them. We should not make exemptions. We would not do so for a new coal mine.
We need to call time on this charade. The men are not going to be recovered. There is not going to be any significant new evidence that changes the key conclusions. We need to heed the Royal Commission's concluding message that the best tribute we can pay to the 29 lost men is to ensure the tough new workplace safety laws put in place in response to the tragedy are respected.
• Dr Nick Smith was a Minister of Conservation, Environment and Building in the last Government and has a PhD in geotechnical engineering from the University of Canterbury