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Remembering what happened at Pike

Written By: - Date published: 10:00 am, November 13th, 2016 - 23 comments
Categories: accountability, disaster, health and safety - Tags: , ,

In light of current events, it pays to re-read this excerpt from Rebecca Macfie’s book on the Pike River disaster, originally published in the Christchurch Press.

Every day through the long hours of testimony, the same worn faces would be seen in the public gallery, determined to make sense of the loss of their husband, son, father, brother, uncle, friend. And every day they would hear dark new evidence revealing the immensity of Pike River Coal’s failings. Mining a coal seam known to be high in methane gas, the company had not installed a system fit for the purpose of monitoring its major hazard. Fixed sensors in the mine hadn’t been working for weeks before the explosion …

They heard how Pike’s electrical system departed from conventional mine design: the main fan – the principal source of clean air for the workers – was placed underground, where it could not be reached in the event of a disaster …

Despite early plans to pre-drain methane from the coal seam before mining began, this hadn’t happened …

Pike had forged ahead with the introduction of its hydro-mining system before establishing the second means of egress that was required in law …

The evidence laid before the Royal Commission showed that day after day Pike’s underground workers – miners and the many contractors who had no background and little training in coal mining – had walked into an environment that might have exploded any number of times  …

For months, these men had reported incidents of excess methane, and many other health and safety problems. “In the 48 days before the explosion there had been 21 reports of methane levels reaching explosive volumes, and 27 reports of lesser, but potentially dangerous, volumes of the gas,” the commission noted. “The reports of excess methane continued up to the very morning of the tragedy. The warnings were not heeded.” …

Those whose duty it was to manage the risks of the operation had failed … And the regulator had allowed Pike to continue operating in breach of the law …

[The commission] could not determine the cause of the explosion: the forensic evidence remained locked away in the inhospitable bowels of the Paparoa mountains. Assisted by the findings of a team of investigators hired by the Department of Labour and police and led by Australian mine safety expert David Reece, it could only come up with possible scenarios.

… In the absence of hard evidence, the scenarios presented by the Royal Commission were just that. But whatever the cause of the explosion, one fact was obvious: it would not have occurred in an environment where the critical risks were properly controlled.

Six years on from the disaster, the families of the Pike River 29 still don’t have answers. They don’t have justice. They don’t even have their boys back. That’s why they’re occupying the road to the mine to stop the government and Solid Energy sealing it forever.

For updates on the occupation, follow Stand With Pike on Facebook.

23 comments on “Remembering what happened at Pike ”

  1. greywarshark 1

    The families of the 29 men who died don’t know, and as Solid Energy moves to seal the mine forever, they demand justice.

    But as well as justice they demand compassion. These men have died in an industrial ‘war’. They deserve their remains be buried with honour, even if the urns are filled with a mix of dirt from the mine and ashes of the men.

    • Rae 1.1

      And some sort of attempt to get to the bottom of what went on down there. It must remain able to be re-entered, whenever that may be, so that some sort of forensic examination can take place.
      29 men are dead, nothing was really done about it, that is so wrong.

  2. greywarshark 2

    The running of the mine was unsatisfactory. After the first explosion the miners who were on the surface and still functioning should have had the option of deciding to go in themselves with police facilitation. They were the ones most affected, willing, and able
    to make a judgment on safety. Waivers absolving police from fault would have been signed by the mining team.

    An urgent meeting where the likely conditions in the mine, and the latest gas readings that could be obtained would have been tabled. Various plans and likely outcomes discussed. Perhaps a tag team approach, with two going in with harnesses ready to be hauled back if need be, second by second reports as they penetrated into the mine and be sending pictures back, if there were cameras available.

    No doubt all the equipment needed wouldn’t have been there. But if they got started with two or three men with proper breathing masks who could go a measured amount of time into the mine, and come back. The next pair would be able to go further. It still might not have been successful for getting injured or bodies back but in that window when the gas was low after the explosion, the opportunity should have been made available to the experienced miners to gather, and discuss search – the police are not competent in this specialised area and prevented citizens from acting in their stead.

  3. Manuka AOR 3

    …after the mine disaster, which took 29 lives, the company was portrayed as providing a great service to the coast and as the “victim”.

    “Pike failed in its fundamental duty to provide a safe workplace,” she told delegates.

    The prime minister had sat next to chief executive Peter Whittall at the memorial service who was lauded by the media.

    No hard questions could be asked of the company following the explosion without accusations of insensitivity.

    “The real story of Pike River is that a group of shareholders from around the world, including some very big multinational companies, recognised the huge value of the coal in Pike River and decided to invest in mining. That’s fine. Whether they did this on the cheap and spent insufficient money on safety is a question on everyone’s lips and a matter for the inquiry,” she said.

    Shareholders had walked away scot-free leaving debt, death and accountability behind them.

    Helen Kelly, speaking at the Labour Congress in May 2011.

  4. Manuka AOR 4

    The lawyer for the relatives, Nigel Hampton QC, told Justice Brendan Brown the “unlawful and exceptional” deal which saw that charges against Whittall dropped in December 2013 set a “dangerous precedent in New Zealand that justice can be bought”.

    This type of “chequebook justice” was an abuse of public interest and a misuse of the criminal justice system and its processes, he said.

    Hampton also criticised the “unusual” blanket suppression order made by a district court judge on December 10, the day before the offer of $3.4 million to families was “played into court”.

    The deal was made behind closed doors because if word got out to the victims, it may have been scuppered, Hampton said.

    He questioned whether Whittall would have been charged if it were not for the payment.

    “What if someone couldn’t afford to make the payment? Charges would have proceeded,” he said.

    “Is it justice for the rich?”

    The families would have rather seen Whittall held to account in a court of law than receive the $110,000 compensatory payment per family, Hampton said.

  5. Manuka AOR 5

    There’s a video of the protest here apparently (today)
    I cannot get it to play but I’m using an old browser

  6. Manuka AOR 6

    Plans for sealing off are “delayed”:

    Environment Minister Nick Smith said the delay stemmed from the emotion surrounding the upcoming anniversary [of the miners’ deaths] on Saturday.

    Solid Energy will return the mine to the Department of Conservation (DOC) after sealing it.

    DOC was wary of Solid Energy workers facing resistance from protesters, Mr Smith said.

    Ms Rockhouse, whose son Ben died in the explosions, said the pair was inspired [to start the protest] by their friend, campaigner Helen Kelly


  7. Manuka AOR 7

    Our Justice System needs an overhaul. It is a bit of a train wreck, far too often. I wonder if Andrew Little would put that on the agenda somewhere.

  8. Manuka AOR 8

    “There are people in that mine who survived just like I did,” Pike River mine survivor: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11747378

    There is no doubt in Daniel Rockhouse’s mind that he and Russell Smith were not the only two who survived the first Pike River mine explosion.

    Rockhouse made his way out of the mine after a methane blast on November 19, 2010, dragging Smith with him.

    The friends were the only two men who came out alive after the explosion ripped through the West Coast coal mine, leaving 29 trapped inside – where they remain today.

    He calls Solid Energy’s plans to permanently plug the mine with concrete “disgusting”.

    (Nick Smith’s “delay” is just one week. Nothing.)

    • Muttonbird 8.1

      The delay will be about getting the polling done and focus groups consulted. Key will make the call based in this information.

      Very important now for the protest to stay put.

      • Manuka AOR 8.1.1

        Key will make the call based in this information.

        Nope. See my comment and the link below. They’ve given the decision- making final say to the vested interests. JK and Nick Smith have just shrugged and passed the buck.

        As Andrew Little says at the same link:
        Labour leader Andrew Little said independent, objective advice from mines experts had shown the drift near the entrance of the mine was safe to re-enter.

        “If the advice that they now seem to be receiving is accurate … then what possible impediment is there to go and check that out. Why wouldn’t you give it a go?” [my bold]

        To answer Andrew’s question, “Vested Interests”.

        • Muttonbird

          Yep. I hear that but they are seeing how far they can go down the do nothing route. It’s their style. They will be watching this very carefully, no doubt about it. It could be very damaging to the government – another sign of emotional disconnection and lack of compassion.

          Key is keeping distance between himself and the decision deliberately for now (note it’s a spokesman for the prime minister) but he will be called upon to show leadership if the protest is resolute and strongly supported.

          What are solid energy going to do? Drive through the road-block? Meanwhile, Little should be suggesting to Damian O’Conner he should be camping out with them…

          • Manuka AOR

            Little should be suggesting to Damian O’Conner he should be camping out with them…

            Well, with or without Andrew’s advice, this will show whether O’Connor gives a damn. Because that is exactly what he should be doing. If he doesn’t, why would the workers of the West Coast ever vote for him? It is actions, not pretty words that count.

            • Muttonbird

              +1. Are you aware of any visit by O’Conner to the blockade? I know he has commented but can’t remember about what which says something.

              The Grey District Mayor was there stating what the families want in clear terms, and the families themselves are realistic about the outcomes from a limited entry but as Anna Osbourne said: closure for just one family, even if it were not her own, would be a huge benefit for all.


              • Manuka AOR

                any visit by O’Conner to the blockade?

                I don’t know, it doesn’t stand out. He needs to go there and start shouting. (Maybe Greywarshark or someone else knows.)

                • Muttonbird

                  It’s a shame. For a lot of New Zealanders this protest is the first visible action which they can understand and some opposition representation would really lift that visibility.

                  Dr Mengele Smith is due to talk over the families on Wednesday night and remind them of the brighter future. It will be interesting how he is received after passing the decision to solid energy who we know are run by a group of idiots.

                • He was at the blockade on day 1 and tweeted in support of the families:

                  Given assurances by Nick Smith and the mine manager that the seal will not be put in place this week, and the earthquake overnight, the occupation is being paused, but they’ll be back.

          • Manuka AOR

            You know, Labour, or any other opposition party, are missing a huge opportunity here, to show they are more than delicate wee patsies. Feelings run deep across Aotearoa for what happened at the mine, though people may not speak it. Nats don’t care – everyone who counts for them is in big city Auckland or around the hive. If some party stepped up and did something as real people, rather than just jabber about it, they would show their worth, – regardless of the outcome.

            • Muttonbird

              Agree. This case demands action by politicians who want to be seen as caring and compassionate leaders.

              Imagine if Helen Kelly did go into parliament – she would know what to do.

              • Manuka AOR

                I’m sure Pike River was one of the things she was very sad to have to leave unfinished.

                … And I think she would be trying to put a grenade under their seats to go out and do something about it 🙂

  9. Manuka AOR 9

    It is an abrogation of responsibility by Nick Smith to hand the final decision for sealing the mine, to Solid Energy. The determination of whether or not the mine is safe enough to enter should NOT be left to the company because they are always going to make a decision that seems easiest, fastest and of course cheapest. The ethical or ‘human’ component, the people most immediately affected by the decision, are mere blips on the company radar.

    A spokesman for the Prime Minister said the Government had done everything it could to allow the recovery of the bodies, but ultimately the decision whether to re-enter the mine was Solid Energy’s.

    “The expert advice remains that the mine is unsafe to enter and we cannot risk further lives by allowing entry when it is not safe to do so.”

  10. Manuka AOR 10

    Now, after the Kaikoura quake, someone has noted on Radio Live that the Pike River mine collapse happened exactly one month after the 2010 Canterbury quake, and he is calling for mines to be closed from now until the main aftershocks are passed and the mines really safe.

  11. Philj 11

    Buck passing at its best/worst. Justice and Democracy is being tested…. and found wanting. ‘For health and safety reasons’ The outrageous irony of it all!

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