Faults were min­ers’ death war­rants

Auckland City Harbour News - - NEWS -

The Pike River tragedy was pre­ventable, caused by the mine be­ing used be­fore it was ready and the com­pany ig­nor­ing warn­ings of deadly ex­plo­sive meth­ane lev­els, the Royal Com­mis­sion has found.

The min­ers lived a life of ‘‘un­ac­cept­able risk’’.

A ques­tion so far unan­swered: How many other New Zealand mines are as dan­ger­ous?

A Fairfax News sum­mary of a damn­ing report on the Novem­ber 2010 ex­plo­sion that killed 29 work­ers found Pike River’s ‘‘drive for coal pro­duc­tion be­fore the mine was ready cre­ated the cir­cum­stances’’ which led to ex­plo­sions.

The com­mis­sion rec­om­mended sweep­ing changes af­ter find­ing the De­part­ment of Labour failed to no­tice the mine’s fail­ings and pre­vent those deaths.

Labour Min­is­ter Kate Wilkin­son re­signed her port­fo­lio in the wake of the report’s re­lease.

The com­mis­sion found there had been re­ports of ex­cess meth­ane, as well as other health and safety prob­lems ‘‘for months’’.

In the two days be­fore the first ex­plo­sion there were 21 re­ports of meth­ane lev­els reach­ing ex­plo­sive vol­umes and 27 re­ports of lesser but still po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous amounts.

‘‘The re­ports of ex­cess meth­ane con­tin­ued up to the very morn­ing of the tragedy. The warn­ings were not heeded.’’

The com­mis­sion also found that Pike River be­gan op­er­at­ing the West Coast coalmine be­fore its health and safety sys­tems were ad­e­quate. Drainage and ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems ‘‘could not cope’’ with ev­ery­thing the com­pany was try­ing to do, such as driv­ing road­ways through coal, drilling ahead into the coal seam and ex­tract­ing coal by hy­dro min­ing.

Be­cause the com­pany had only one other mine as its rev­enue source man­agers had to con­tin­u­ally bor­row to keep op­er­a­tions go­ing.

Pike River’s ini­tial es­ti­mates that the mine would pro­duce more than a mil­lion tonnes of coal a year by 2008 were un­re­al­is­tic. It had shipped only 42,000 tonnes.

The com­mis­sion found that the com­pany’s board of direc­tors did not en­sure health and safety was prop­erly man­aged and its ex­ec­u­tive man­agers did not prop­erly as­sess the ‘‘un­ac­cept­able risks’’ work­ers were ex­posed to.

‘‘Min­ing should have stopped un­til the risks could be prop­erly man­aged,’’ it said.

The De­part­ment of Labour should have pro­hib­ited the mine from op­er­at­ing un­til ad­e­quate sys­tems were in place. It ‘‘as­sumed’’ Pike River was com­ply­ing with the law ‘‘even though there was am­ple ev­i­dence to the con­trary’’.

The com­mis­sion found there was no ‘‘pre­dictable win­dow of op­por­tu­nity’’ for the Mines Res­cue Ser­vice to safely en­ter the mine af­ter the first ex­plo­sion.

There was no sys­tem for sam­pling the mine’s at­mos­phere af­ter an ex­plo­sion so it was ‘‘im­pos­si­ble’’ to as­sess the risks of en­try.

The lo­ca­tion of the main un­der­ground fan and dam­age caused to the backup fan on the sur­face meant the mine could not be reven­ti­lated quickly. The com­mis­sion found com­ments by chief ex­ec­u­tive Peter Whit­tall af­ter the first ex­plo­sion, in­clud­ing that fresh air was be­ing pumped into the mine and men were wait­ing un­der­ground for a res­cue at­tempt, gave false hope. How­ever, the com­mis­sion found he did not in­ten­tion­ally mis­lead the fam­i­lies or the pub­lic.

Although the com­ments were ‘‘overop­ti­mistic, even un­wise’’, they were made un­der ‘‘ex­treme stress’’. In this col­umn’s mail­bag: ‘‘Sadly, your col­umn on Pike River mine in­volves a clas­sic case of safety sys­tems, work­place prac­tices and government in­spec­tion sys­tems fail­ing at times lead­ing up to a dis­as­ter.

‘‘As a friend of mine says, a dis­as­ter is caused by a se­ries of un­safe events de­lib­er­ate or ac­ci­den­tal which fi­nally add up to a dis­as­ter.

‘‘In my opin­ion this was the sce­nario, the min­ing com­pany had to drive a long tun­nel to as­sess a rich, proven coal seam. This be­ing costed out and the nec­es­sary funds raised.

‘‘Un­for­tu­nately, a mas­sive rock fall oc­curred, forc­ing a clear­ance which caused a mas­sive over­run in the cost of tun­nelling, also caus­ing prob­lems in the pre­vi­ously ar­ranged coal de­liv­ery con­tracts be­ing de­layed. A man­ager was em­ployed to speed up the con­struc­tion of that tun­nel to get to the coal seam as quickly as pos­si­ble. The whole scene was to make speed at all costs, the min­ers also re­warded for any in­crease in daily tun­nelling speed.

‘‘A whole sys­tem of a ‘ gung ho’ ap­proach was es­tab­lished with short­cuts and safety sys­tems turned off or de­fec­tive. All those er­rors fi­nally adding up to an ex­plo­sion of meth­ane gas that had built up and not be­ing de­tected, sadly with the loss of 29 min­ers. Our sym­pa­thy goes to their griev­ing fam­i­lies.

‘‘This was a clas­sic ex­am­ple of mak­ing speed at all costs be­cause of un­ex­pected cost over­runs, us­ing ques­tion­able work­place prac­tices.

‘‘Those short­cuts, etc, re­sulted in a ma­jor dis­as­ter that will all come out in the var­i­ous of­fi­cial in­quiries and, hopefully, a sys­tem will be put in place so this never hap­pens again. At least those 29 men will have not died in vain, at least their death will en­sure a really strong sys­tem of min­ing prac­tice will even­tu­ate. Sadly so many times work­ers have to die be­fore rigid su­per­vised work­place sys­tems are es­tab­lished.’’ – C Strick­ett, Waitakere ‘‘If any government for the past 10-20 years showed any balls this and mine clo­sures would not have hap­pened and in fact the min­ing in­dus­try would be em­ploy­ing a lot more peo­ple than they cur­rently are.

‘‘Mines such as Pike River and Spring Creek should sim­ply have been op­er­ated as open cast mines. That would have been far more eco­nom­i­cal and prof­itable to op­er­ate and would have a far longer eco­nom­i­cal life for all those on the West Coast. Any scar on the land­scape would never have been even no­ticed by the great ma­jor­ity of peo­ple liv­ing in New Zealand – prob­a­bly like putting a 50 cent coin in the mid­dle of Welling­ton and ask­ing peo­ple if they have seen it.

‘‘The big­gest trav­esty of all this is the on­go­ing pan­der­ing to the do­good­ers, tree hug­gers and gree­nies who are sim­ply hold­ing the coun­try to ran­som. They have, in fact, contributed greatly to the sad loss of lives at Pike River and the loss of jobs and life­style for all those who have worked within this in­dus­try at mines such as Spring Creek and Huntly East for many years.’’ – Dennis Lang, Paku­ranga About the not-so-su­per-city: ‘‘I was no fan of the ‘‘su­per-city’’ con­cept. I live in Waitakere, which (in case you missed the bumper sticker) was al­ready a su­per city.

‘‘But in fact my life has changed for the bet­ter. I can now bor­row books and me­dia at any Auck­land li­brary. I think that is a sub­stan­tial ben­e­fit for all of us. And I ac­tu­ally think mayor Len is do­ing rea­son­ably well with the mixed bag­gage he took on. Whether or not we favoured the con­cept, it’s now a re­al­ity and two years down the road I don’t see much point in wish­ing we could turn back the clock Or in carp­ing about who should take credit for what.’’ – A S King

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