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McCarten on Pike River

Written By: - Date published: 9:59 am, December 5th, 2010 - 64 comments
Categories: accountability, Mining - Tags: ,

This piece by Matt McCarten has come up on Open Mike. Here are extracts:

Eventually someone will be held culpable

Someone has to say it. The collective media swooning for Pike River boss Peter Whittall is just wrong.

Of course Whittall is devastated about the miners’ deaths. But he is also the guy in charge of protecting his workers and his company may have failed in that duty.

Instead we have sainthood surreally foisted on Whittall by the media and politicians alike, anointing him as the public face of national mourning for his dead employees and subcontractors.

Yet under his watch, 29 men were killed and still lie entombed. Family members and friends of the dead have been robbed of a loved one. Many other workers, as a result of the explosion, will lose their livelihoods.

Unbelievably, the chief executive of this company becomes a media darling. …

I can’t help thinking the genuine outpouring of grief by New Zealanders is inadvertently being manipulated. The mining company is being outrageously painted as an innocent victim alongside the 29 men. It also gives John Key and his government a public platform.

Too cynical? How else do you explain various cabinet ministers elbowing their way into television shots when there isn’t even a need for them to be at the mine? And what about the memorial? It seemed the whole Cabinet was on stage with other “dignitaries”.

The mining company executives were given pride of place next to the Prime Minister. The victims’ families and the miners’ union representatives were told to sit in the audience. When Whittall spoke he made no company apology to the families. I wonder if that was on advice from their lawyers? …

But we know whose interests this Government supports. Last week while the country’s attention was on the tragedy, they shoved anti-worker legislation through Parliament under urgency. Ironically one of the new laws passed is to make it harder for unions to enter a workplace to observe safety measures.

Despite not getting to sit at the top table on Thursday the unionists did something better. After the speechifying was over, the singing of the union movement’s anthem, Solidarity Forever, spontaneously erupted from the crowd. That was the only unscripted event of the day. Miners would have liked that. But they’d also like someone to take responsibility for killing them too.

64 comments on “McCarten on Pike River ”

  1. ianmac 1

    John Key made a remark last week that they have turned the West Coast from Red to Blue. And what a great opportunity to turn tragedy into a political platform, but in subtle fluffy ways. No son of an MP will serve in a mine just as no son of a Senator would serve in Afghanistan!
    And any unfortunate who draws attention to this cynical action can be called uncaring, a traitor, or even a commie sympathiser!

  2. vto 2

    I agree completely. And have been vilified for raising similar points during and after the disaster.

    The finger will point directly at the company, which then breaks down into management (Whittall) and board (Dow etc). It has occurred to me that at times Whittall in fact looks a touch nervous with his manner of answering questions. I would hazard a guess that during the Inquiry things may come out which he has known for some time which will paint a quite different light.

    Some knowledge tells me that the industry / pike river coal have clammed up. Such is their worry perhaps …

  3. Sanctuary 3

    This disaster will be identified as resulting from systemic institutional dismissals of the risks in opening the mine in the first place. The deification of business and the stampede to show regulatory angencies are anxious to “cut red tape” and facilitate export orientated extractive industries on the West Coast will be shown to have resulted in a fatal politically influenced decision-bias that saw this mine approved, built and operated when inherently it was unsafe to do so.

    Because we worship a certain kind of business-ordained “common sense” in this country, no one anywhere any longer has the mandate and responsibility to just say no to decisions inherently wrong. It is common sense Jim, but not as Voltaire would know it.

    This disaster will be sheeted back to no-one in particular, and the “system” (read government agencies – business will get off scott free, dispite their lobbying and bribery) in general. Such is the hegomonistic dominance of the “rightness” of corporate groupthink in all out public and private sectors (and in the mainstream media) the lesson from Pike River will be imposssible to be learnt or absorbed, because the implications for our whole mad experiment in authoritarian neo-liberalism would cause to much cognitive dissonance for it to be contemplated. Instead, the whole thing will be written off as an act of God, a few scapegoats (Whittall, Dow – it depends on whether or not the media pack decides to turn on them to keep the ratings up) may or may not be punished, and Pike River will re-open, only to be quietly closed a few years later when the realities of the cost of making it safe means it will never be profitable.

    • Colonial Viper 3.1

      Well we don’t have to chuck in the towel quite yet, the future (and this report) are not yet written.

    • ianmac 3.2

      This disaster will be identified as resulting from systemic institutional dismissals of the risks in opening the mine in the first place.
      Haven’t the NAct folk declared war on the Resource Consent Process? They say far too many fiddling time-wasting nonsenses get in the way of real developments! As for impediments through safety concerns- rubbish!

    • Swampy 3.3

      I think you are talking rubbish and should wait for the Royal Commission. The history of this country proves quite the opposite of what you claim.

      • mcflock 3.3.1

        Ah – obviously there’s been no case in NZ history where capitalists have cut back on safety to maximise profits, nor has their ever been a case where corporate managers have lied about events that killed people in order to limit their civil and criminal liability, nor has their been a case where either has happened and then the subsequent official inquiry has covered it up.

        /sarc

  4. Draco T Bastard 4

    When Whittall spoke he made no company apology to the families. I wonder if that was on advice from their lawyers?

    It will have been. One thing I’ve learned from working in corporates is that they will never, ever admit to being wrong even if only indirectly.

    Ironically one of the new laws passed is to make it harder for unions to enter a workplace to observe safety measures.

    That’s not ironic – that was most definitely purposeful so that companies can cut costs even more and, yes, the deaths at Pike River are most definitely the result of inadequate procedures used in the mine for which the company is responsible.

    • Sanctuary 4.1

      My understanding is that the valuable hard coal being mined at Pike River is well known for high methane levels, and for the danger of hitting sudden “pockets” of methane that can flood the mine. Pike River has already suffered considerable delays due to trying to manage and ameliorate how they handle this.

      That is why I suspect the mine was inherently unsafe all along using standard safety measures, and why I think the mine will never be able to be re-opened and operated profitably if it is to be also made safe.

    • KJT 4.2

      The first thing insurance companies tell you is never to admit responsibility. I suspect Peter Whittal was not allowed to say any thing that could be construed as doing that, including apologies.

      I also think, that like most accidents, there is rarely one cause and it is usually due to mistakes, lack of knowledge or failings at several levels.

  5. Ed 5

    Trevor Mallard stands out with an honourable response – he has appropriate and natural sympathy for all affected, but also says that he has agonised over whether he made or did not make any decisions which could have avoided this tragedy, and wants his role to be openly considered together with those of others.

    Would that other politicians held similar views.

    • Trevor did publish a discussion paper on mining safety in 2008 and the report then fell on Kate Wilkinson’s desk. She then proceeded to do nothing with it.

      The paper is at http://www.dol.govt.nz/consultation/underground-mining/underground-mining-consultation.pdf

      • BLiP 5.1.1

        From the paper linked in Mickey’s comment:

        Underground mining is an important part of New Zealand’s economy and history. However, working in an underground coal or metalliferous mine can be hazardous, with the potential for catastrophic incidents. It is vital that good health and safety practices are in place –
        because people’s lives depend on them. I [ that’s Trevor Mallard ] asked the Department of Labour to undertake a review of the current Health and Safety in Employment regulatory framework as it relates to underground mining and to assess whether it is effective in managing the hazards faced in the underground mining environment.

        [snip]

        Queensland requires a safety and health management system similar to New Zealand’s HSE Act system. An underground mine is also required to have a principal hazard management plan providing for at least the following: emergency response, gas management, methane drainage, mine ventilation, spontaneous combustion and strata control.

        The regulations are very comprehensive, and the underground section contains provisions for emergencies, rescue and communication, electrical equipment and installations, explosives and explosive power tools, gas monitoring, mechanical, mine design, mining operations, ventilation and working environment.

        No one can say the authorities or the company were unaware of the risks and nor can they say there were no requirements to mitigate those risks. The question was on the best way to go about it. Submissions to the initial March 2008 report featured all the usual suspects bleating about compliance costs and promoting the failed concept that “the market will provide”. From the “Summary Of Sumbissions”:

        Submitters opposing the safety case option (Pike River Coal, Roa Mining, MinEx,
        EMA, McConnell Dowell) had the following concerns:

        · requiring a full safety case would be too onerous and costly for the small mining industry, especially for small operators

        · the model is relatively “untried” (despite operating in the rail sector, and its emergence for Australian mining) – submitters considered New Zealand lacks enough experience to operate it effectively without undue compliance costs, and

        · submitters considered that the department does not have the resources to operate an approval system without causing undue delay and cost for operators.

        Since then, of course, National Ltd™ has set about ensuring government departments are “resource stripped” and, specifically in the case of worker safety, usurped democracy to give employers the upper hand. And, in the hands of Calamity Kate “Folic Acid” Wilkinson, the Department of Labour has withered like a neglected house plant.

        The death of the miners can be put down to the “systemic failure” of those supposedly looking after our best interests. The Labour Government gave the go ahead for the mine while National Ltd™ did nothing about a potential hazard. The market simply acted as it always does in the absence of any enforcement of regulation.

        • Swampy 5.1.1.1

          However, there is the question of whether our mining regulations are as good as Queenslands’ or other countries and whether the DOL (is that the responsible department) is up to the task of making good regulations and enforcing them.

          Some have decried the change in HSE when the specific mining requirements were replaced with generic principles for all workplace safety. The rationale which was a good starting point was to say that workplace safety needed to apply to all workplaces, not just the handful mentioned in the various laws at the time. But there must be a bigger question as to whether the self regulatory regime is good enough or whether mining specific regulations have kept up.

          • BLiP 5.1.1.1.1

            One thing we know for sure, under National Ltd™ the provision for the safety of mine workers has stagnated and, across the wider economy, gone backwards. Still, plenty of cannon fodder for the employers to go around now the dole queue stretches around the block. And, whew! Just as well those pesky unions can’t go wandering about the place checking things, eh? Praise be to Mammon for “urgency”.

        • Swampy 5.1.1.2

          Compliance costs are very important to business and it is reasonable to say that the safety case requirement would be very demanding for small businesses. The rail industry as an example, the smaller players in NZ have typically found the safety case requirement very onerous. And it is disproportionate, more a case of greasing the squeakiest wheel or political favours, far more people die on the roads every year where no safety case is required.

  6. Darien Fenton 6

    I agree with Matt on this. I don’t know why the miners’ union weren’t part of the service, especially as a union delegate died in that mine, and 17 of the men were EPMU members – and now the remaining miners from Pike River are relying on their union for advice and support in the Labour Department investigation. Good old Governor General acknowledged the union leaders and union membersin his speech, but he was the only one who did.

    • It was a nice touch the crowd singing “Solidarity forever”. For those who may not have heard this the song starts as follows:

      When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
      There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
      Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
      But the union makes us strong.
      CHORUS:
      Solidarity forever,
      Solidarity forever,
      Solidarity forever,
      For the union makes us strong.

  7. Bill 7

    Hmm.

    “If Key truly cared about the victims he’d ask their union, the EPMU, to nominate a candidate endorsed by the victims’ families to join the commission so they can ask the hard questions about safety standards and legislation those in power won’t want to hear.”

    I’d go further and suggest (as I did yesterday, even though I know it’s beyond the bounds of acceptable thought) that the union should be given a predominant position in any inquiry.

    • Swampy 7.1

      It’s beyond the bounds of common sense, as well. Now you are saying the union should just about be running the inquiry. It would just about be impossible to guarantee fair and due process with their well known political agendas in play. You may complain that there is not a union rep on the commission but neither is there any other political person or industry representative either.

  8. vto 8

    I didn’t notice that Pike River Coal and Peter Whittall did not apologise to the miners families.

    That is appalling.

    This is going to get ugly I suspect.

  9. mike b 9

    Matt’s spouting his usual bullshit again. Peter Whittall worked underground side by side with most of those 29 men in the mine until his recent promotion to wellington.

    Maybe no MP’s sons or senators sons worked in the mine, but the CEO did until a few months ago.

    • IrishBill 9.1

      You make it sound like he was an actual miner but he was the general manager. From Pike’s website:

      “Mr Whittall has held the position of General Manager-Mines since he joined Pike River at the company’s Greymouth mine site in 2005. During that time he has been responsible for on-site construction, mine development, recruitment of the new operations workforce and has been closely involved with the company’s recent capital raisings. He moved to the Wellington head office of Pike River earlier this year.”

      • Colonial Viper 9.1.1

        Maybe mike b thinks that Whittall situated his General Manager’s office at the bottom of the mine?

        • Swampy 9.1.1.1

          Maybe you do? What sense would that make?

          • BLiP 9.1.1.1.1

            You can bet the safety would be top notch.

            • Swampy 9.1.1.1.1.1

              Whittall spent a lot of his time in that mine. Do you suppose safety would have been important to him then?

              • Colonial Viper

                How much time is ‘a lot of his time’?

                You know, out of 2000 working hours a year? Fifty hours? A hundred hours? A few hundred hours?

                Further – Whittall and their company may truly have believed that they had taken all the precautions that they felt were needed. They may have truly believed that the probability of an ‘incident’ was sufficiently low. But that does not mean that they weren’t completely wrong.

                After all, we know that people (and organisations) can be totally rubbish at judging risks and probabilities even when they have specialist reliability engineers working on it. (See Airbus/Rolls Royce, BP, etc)

        • mike b 9.1.1.2

          His office IS actually at the bottom of the mine colonial viper, not that he stayed in his office much anyway. See, I’ve been to the mine, met the bloke, and lost a friend in the explosion. Peter was in the mine pretty much every day during construction and tunnelling, and was literally shoulder to shoulder with the miners. Obviously there’s been a safety problem for an event like this to occur, but Peter wasn’t asking the miners to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. It appears as though you’re trying to cast him as a soft, cigar smoking elitist slavedriver. Nothing could be further from the truth.

          • Colonial Viper 9.1.1.2.1

            but Peter wasn’t asking the miners to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself.

            Peter may have been convinced himself that the mine was safe and that all necessary precautions had been taken.

            Hey may also have been completely wrong in that belief.

            It appears as though you’re trying to cast him as a soft, cigar smoking elitist slavedriver. Nothing could be further from the truth.

            1) You just mentioned he smoked cigars not me, I never used that term
            2) You just mentioned he was soft not me, I never used that term
            3) You just mentioned he was elitist not me, I never used that term
            4) You just mentioned he was a slavedriver not me, I never used that term
            5) You’re full of it.

            • mike b 9.1.1.2.1.1

              You’re full of it.
              I know Peter, know most of the 29, and I’ve lived in the town all my life. Your sniping to score cheap political points is vulgar. The union at Pike was pretty much an irrelevant entity, didn’t really do much for the miners, most union members were members out of tradition, not out of necessity. I didn’t feature much in their lives and, correctly, it hasn’t featured much in their deaths either. Attention has been given instead to where it has been well deserved- to the honest, sensible and intelligent leadership of the CEO.

              • Colonial Viper

                Attention has been given instead to where it has been well deserved- to the honest, sensible and intelligent leadership of the CEO.

                Hey good on you, every CEO who has had a tragedy on his watch needs a enthusiastic supporters club.

                I didn’t feature much in their lives and

                Well, thanks for your one bit of truth here.

                You’re full of it.

                Hmmmmm you do know people can scroll up to look at what you just wrote before, right?

                • mike b

                  Sorry, I meant to say “it didn’t feature much in their lives”.

                  And it’s true, I knew most of those guys and worked at the mine, whereas I suspect you don’t know any miners or anything about mining at all.

                  Ergo there’s no point continuing this. I’m outta here.
                  RIP pike river miners.

          • felix 9.1.1.2.2

            mike b is playing a clever word game – “the bottom of the mine” is outside the entrance, innit. Goes uphill, this mine does.

            It’s bullshit anyway though. His office is actually in Wellington.

            • mike b 9.1.1.2.2.1

              I wondered if anyone would pick that up, well done felix. It was a tongue in cheek answer to the idiot who suggested that because his office wasn’t in the mine, he never went underground. But is it bullshit? I don’t think so. Before his very recent promotion, his office was about two hundred meters from the mine portal, where he would go and spend a lot of each day overseeing the development of the mine, right next to my brother in law cutting coal at the coal face.

            • Colonial Viper 9.1.1.2.2.2

              Cheers felix 😀

              It was a tongue in cheek answer to the idiot who suggested that because his office wasn’t in the mine, he never went underground.

              Again no one suggested this you made it up.

      • Swampy 9.1.2

        He was the General Manager, Mines. When he started the mine wasn’t even open and was only just being developed. At that size of the business and level of development he did not sit in an office all day. He got out and led much of the development in his area of expertise which is mining engineering and that meant he spent a lot of time underground.

        • BLiP 9.1.2.1

          Under his management there’s 29 miners spending a lot more time than he ever did underground.

          • Swampy 9.1.2.1.1

            Well then hang the CEO from the nearest tree. Who needs a royal commission or anything.

            • Colonial Viper 9.1.2.1.1.1

              You can’t do that Swampy, he (and his organisation) have a hell of a lot of questions to answer.

              • mike b

                bollocks. a minute ago you wanted him to apologise and admit culpability right away, didn’t you?

                • Colonial Viper

                  😀 lolz

                  Due process mate, him and his organisation has to answer the questions.

                  • blacksand

                    it’s not his organisation. he was employed by the company to get a job done. He worked at the face of the operation with his team of miners and whoever else got the thing going on the ground, and having done that has has been moved into a different manager position by those who employ him.

                    I think what Swampy is getting at is that yes, he was in fact in as harm’s way as his teams. That doesn’t by any long stretch mean that he’s due the anger that these deaths might spark.

                    I’m sure a board out there somewhere would breath easy were Peter W to be blamed for all of this. More blame is with the politicians who leave safety issues undealt with and the corporate bosses who opposed such measures – including Pike River Coal.

                    First I heard of Peter W was as the CEO of Pike River after the tragedy. All that was apparent of his was that he was doing the best for all those who still could be helped. That his title is CEO counts for less as a measure of him than some seem to think.

            • BLiP 9.1.2.1.1.2

              Can’t really, there’s a little something that I know is alien to a Tory’s thinking; it called due process. Trouble is, the company is seeking to interfere with it. Why do you think that might be?

  10. Swampy 10

    So. Matt is so predictable. Whittall is not a union leader and there are no places for bosses like Peter Whittall in the world, in effect. Remember SWFU taking potshots at Dick Hubbard in his cereal factory a few years ago. It was pretty simple to see what they were aiming at and what Matt is aiming at. The union wanted to make a big power grab in that workplace and so they started meddling and turning the workers against Hubbard.

    The people and commentators were applauding Whittall because he showed so much care and personal concern for his employees. Matt, that’s how it works in a small-medium business. Everyone knows everyone. They don’t need HR managers or union delegates to act as intermediaries between management and coalface. But you can easily appreciate that SMBs are not liked by the union movement because they are hard to organise because people have these strong relationships and they don’t like or want outsiders bringing their political agendas in.

    • Colonial Viper 10.1

      Unions are needed to counterweight the power, organisation and authority that employers have in trying to reduce working conditions and drive down wages. More workers need to join unions and the behaviour of National is making that clear to more and more people.

      I have known senior managers show much care and personal concern for employees even as they close factories down, lay off staff and move jobs offshore. Personal care and concern do not help newly unemployed families pay the bills.

      In this day and age we need our unions strong more than ever.

  11. Oscar 11

    I for one am waiting to see how long the miners actually survived for. No doubt they would have kept records wherever they might have been. Can always hope they’re still alive, as until I see the physical proof, I can’t believe an illusion (all dead) as miracles have been known to happen.
    Why was the mine even operational when we knew in 1967 it was leaking methane gas?

    Strongman accessed the Brunner Seam too. With this knowledge, which Minister was responsible for signing off on Pike River in the first place, knowing that shot blasting would cause methane gas to leak? CH4 gas is no safer today than it was 40 years ago. Just like CO2 is no more dangerous today that it has been for the last few millenia.

    I’m all for letting the companys lawyers talk to the workers. BUT: The union lawyers should talk to the workers first, AND be present at all subsequent conversations the worker may have with the company. Unions can always rely on the worker to keep them informed of any meetings the company wants to have.

    In this instance, PRM aren’t acting honorably (but then they never have).

  12. Jenny 12

    .
    Listen to the Radio NZ podcast on Pike River Safety here:
    Radio New Zealand Insight
    Listening to the above Radio New Zealand Insight podcast. It was revealing to find out, that DOC had approved every single request for drilling and access ways on DOC land that it had received from Pike River Mining. This included drilling for ventilation shafts. DOC said that they had been expecting to be asked for permission for a 2nd ventilation shaft on conservation land from the company but they had never received any request for this.

    The Department Of Conservation responsible for the reserve land where the mining was being done, is innocent of the veiled accusation levelled at them by some commentators of putting nature conservation in the way of mining safely.

    In the past week, Guyon Espiner, Mathew Hooton, Paul Holmes, Fran O’Sullivan, all used their powerful positions in the media, to apportion some share of blame for these miners deaths, to overly concern for protecting the environment.

    In my opinion to balance the ledger, DOC and the conservation movement deserve some sort of public apology, and/or retraction from these individuals.

    Will they will get it?

    • Jenny 12.1

      .
      Since penning the above comment I was visited at home by a close friend who informed me that the miners may have survived if DOC had allowed the company to put in an extra ventilation shaft.

      So powerfully planted in the public mind, by the above media opinion formers is the false misconception that the mine management were somehow constrained by DOC because of environmental concerns from fully protecting their workers.

      Not one of these ‘opinion formers’, has as yet, publicly recanted their widely reported views. Consequently this lie continues to be believed and repeated by many members of the general public.

      Mathew Hooton, Paul Holmes and Fran O’Sullivan should correct their mistake.

      Let’s see if these respected ‘opinion formers’ can redeem themselves and admit the falsity of their initial claim.

      • Colonial Viper 12.1.1

        Isn’t it remarkable that people who swallow the “mistake” stop their brains there on DOC and don’t seem to be able to identify the next logical question:

        If the mining company couldn’t get the extra ventilation shaft they needed to make the mine safe why did they still send their workers down?

      • Pascal's bookie 12.1.2

        Jenny, I’m about to go to bed, but the best bet will be to find if there are any specific articles actually stating that the second ventilation shaft was turned down. I can’t recall if that has been mentioned in the media or if it’s just been blog commenters. If we find some, email the publication asking for a correction. Next step would be complaints to press council I guess.

  13. Wow

    I just saw an interview with a former miner Brent Forrester on Sunday on TVOne.

    Someone should grab this and put it up on the site. It is utterly compelling. His concerns about safety over an extended period of time have been borne out.

    Somehow the company has an immediate right of response. How could this have happened?

    Capcha company!!!

    We live in a Company world …

  14. ghostwhowalksnz 14

    I wonder if the Police have seized all records at PRC on the day of the explosion, including computer hard drives with emails and records of correspondence.
    As well the ISP records of emails to check if what you see is what was there
    After Cave Creek , records ‘went missing’ that could have let to prosecutions.
    Or has Whittall been given a soft time by the Superintendent in charge due to the shared experience of the long wait for rescue.

  15. ianmac 15

    The presence of Blue Ducks has been given for the reason that another ventilation shaft was not built. This has been refuted categorically by DOC. It was never a question or discussed. It is a complete fiction.
    But I wonder by whom and why it was ever raised as a possibility?

  16. higherstandard 16

    Has matt paid the back taxes for his employees yet ?

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