As the public and private mourning for the Pike River 29 continues, focus will begin to shift to how this event occurred with no less than five inquires soon to begin. John Armstrong has a very good article on the issues that will be in the spotlight. This is not a question of politics, it’s about preventing future tragedies and I ask you to keep your comments in that vein.
Now, Armstrong makes some comments on the political ramifications but I’m not going to quote those because I don’t want this post to be about party politics. You can check out his article here.
“there is still an awful lot of the necessary ritual of death yet to be played out across the six o’clock news before it is time to ask some hard questions.
Those questions are not going to provide reassuring answers.
As a British mining expert told the BBC, methane levels in the mine must have built up to levels between 5 and 15 per cent of the atmosphere, at which point the gas becomes explosive.
Either the warning systems were inadequate or were not working properly. Or if they were working, they were not being monitored properly. There are no other explanations.”
Methane is 0.0002% of the general atmosphere so getting to a combustible level of over 5% is a huge increase. Its not unusual for coal seams to contain pockets of ‘fire damp’, which is mostly methane, that can be released by mining. Ignition of released methane has been responsible for numerous mining disasters including the previous big one in New Zealand, just down the road from Pike River at the Strongman mine.
But, precisely because methane pockets are known to occur and are dangerous, there are well-developed monitoring and safety procedures that would prevent an explosion. News reports have said that Pike River had asked the government for more information about safely handling methane releases. So, either those measures weren’t in place at Pike River, they weren’t being used properly, or something unusual like a very large and sudden release of methane occurred.
In terms of the effectiveness of the regulations and their enforcement, questions will be asked of “Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson and what she or her department knew or did not know about what was going on at Pike River Coal.
So far, Wilkinson has been kept very much in the background. It is Key’s show. And understandably so, given the magnitude.
It will probably remain Key’s show. What will worry him is that Wilkinson’s hands-off, laissez-faire approach to regulation and monitoring might have left National badly exposed.
Little appears to have emerged in concrete form from a public consultation exercise begun under Labour to improve “hazard management” in the underground mining industry.
Instead, Wilkinson ruled out re-instituting “check inspectors” who would be elected by fellow workers to keep an eye on safety standards.”
It’s perhaps worth explaining what a check inspector is. They are workers, elected by their comrades, who are tasked to be basically full-time health and safety officers. They check the safety of the site before shifts begin and continuously throughout the day. Compare this to the current regime where there are just one or two mine government inspectors for the whole country who make inspections every few months. Check inspectors know their mine, their personal safety and that of their mates and co-workers is on the line, and they deal with issues with the workers behind them, rather than coming in as an outsider.
Australia has check inspectors and New Zealand used to have them until the law was changed in the late 1990s. The miner’s union (the EPMU) consistently called for them to be re-instated but it wasn’t until after two deaths in 2006 that the government began to pay attention. A report was commissioned. In submissions, the EPMU repeated its stance and mining companies were generally opposed. The Herald reports that Pike River didn’t want them at all, although I’ve heard they wanted publicly funded check inspectors (the cost would otherwise be on them).
At any rate, before any decisions could be taken, the 2008 election occurred and the new minister, Wilkinson, dropped the issue.
Armstrong draws attention to “two speeches by Jim Anderton in Parliament this week. The left’s old war horse was not in the mood to join the chorus of praise for the West Coast’s resilience at what fate might have in store for it.
That kind of sentiment has produced a miserable mythology which decrees the Coast must always suffer.
That is not good enough in Anderton’s book. So he effectively served notice that he will putting his not inconsiderable weight behind efforts to find out why things went so dreadfully wrong at a mine which, as it has been open barely a year, should have had all the right equipment and safety practices.
Anderton seems to have made it his personal mission to end the life-and-death lottery that working in underground mines has entailed.
Doing so, moreover, would be the best possible tribute to those who died in the explosion.
Anderton cannot be accused of exploiting the catastrophe for selfish political motives.
For starters, his credentials as the voice of blue-collar workers such as miners are unquestioned. His statements in such circumstances carry huge moral suasion.
He also has nothing to gain politically. He is leaving Parliament at the next election, now no less than 12 months away.”
If Jim can leave Parliament having provided the leadership to raise the standard for health and safety for miners and other workers, then he will have achieved a great thing. The chance to learn and improve from this disaster must not have been lost. The West Coast might be all-too-familiar with dealing with disasters but that doesn’t mean we have to accept them as inevitable.
A little side note on the future of the mine. Pike River has only just started production. The first of two hydro-mining systems have just been installed and there have been only two export shipments of a few tens of thousands of tonnes. Nearly all of the 50 million tonne reserve is still in the ground. To put it bluntly: Pike River has cost $300 million so far and produced just $10 million worth of coal with $15 billion worth still left. The company is understandably keen to get digging again. But I don’t think that will be appropriate until the causes of this disaster are understood and safety measures have been improved.
Even then, restarting the mine will not be a simple exercise. The series of explosions means there’s obviously coal burning, which is providing the ignition when the methane/oxygen balance reaches the right point to explode. Coal seam fires are notoriously hard to extinguish and mining obviously can’t take place while burning is churning out toxic gases. The Australian system that pumps nitrogen in to displace the combustible gases is not guaranteed to work. One only need to look to Centralia, the most famous example of a coal seam fire, to see how long these things can burn.