Pike River – the past and fu­ture

Auckland City Harbour News - - OPINION -

How much will it cost to get charges dropped when, or if, po­lice get a lead on the de­signer of the Christchurch CTV broad­cast­ing build­ing and charge him with false qual­i­fi­ca­tions?

The money will, of course, go to sur­vivors and the nextof-kin of the 115 who died when the build­ing col­lapsed in the 2011 Christchurch earth­quake.

That ques­tion fol­lows con­fir­ma­tion by Fair­fax Me­dia, owner of this news­pa­per, that 12 health and safety charges against the Pike River mine man­ager Peter Whit­tall were dropped on De­cem­ber 12, and that $3.41 mil­lion is go­ing to close fam­ily of the 29 min­ers who died in the mine ex­plo­sion.

No ques­tion that those grants are ab­so­lutely jus­ti­fied.

At some­thing like $110,000, they ac­tu­ally seem too lit­tle.

In ret­ro­spect, an ap­par­ent link be­tween the charges be­ing dropped and money be­ing paid is un­for­tu­nate.

Judge Jane Far­ish then ob­vi­ously fore­saw pos­si­ble the­o­ries when she stressed to me­dia there had been no ‘‘back-room deal’’.

There’s an old maxim that not only should facts or ac­tions be right – they should also ap­pear right.

In this case, they don’t seem right.

At the time of writ­ing, there’s a ‘‘not us’’ re­sponse from the Crown and the de­fence on the is­sue of who ac­tu­ally sug­gested the pay­ment.

Colin Espiner got it right. In the Christchurch Press, he de­scribed the pay­outs as ‘‘as­tound­ing … a gross in­sult to the fam­i­lies and an ad­mis­sion that the Gov­ern­ment re­ally hasn’t learned that much from the whole tragedy’’.

He re­jected – as I do – that pay­ing court-or­dered com­pen­sa­tion on be­half of a pri­vate com­pany could seem an un­for­tu­nate prece­dent.

This Gov­ern­ment reg­u­larly dips into the tax­payer purse to fund pri­vate com­pa­nies.

Like late last year, $30m, 10 times the Pike River to­tal, went to an­other min­ing com­pany, the multi bil­lion-dol­lar in­ter­na­tional cor­po­rate Rio Tinto. No deaths – sim­ply a shift to stop Rio moth­balling the Ti­wai Pt alu­minium smelter.

Colin Espiner also cited other pay­ments – $1.7 bil­lion for South Can­ter­bury Fi­nance, half a bil­lion for AMI, $25m for its own min­ing com­pany Solid En­ergy.

Since the Gov­ern­ment’s pay­out of a to­tal $3. 41m also co­in­cided with the third an­niver­sary of the mine dis­as­ter it could be in­ter­preted as hush money for the fam­i­lies who quite nat­u­rally would be prompted to more mourning by that date.

And scrap­ping the charges against Peter Whit­tall ap­par­ently stemmed from ma­jor prob­lems in pre­par­ing a case to be heard and mount­ing a de­fence.

Es­sen­tial files no longer ex­ist and a num­ber of pos­si­ble wit­nesses have re­fused to give ev­i­dence, while one es­ti­mate was that a hear­ing could last six months, cost a for­tune and even then fail to pro­duce a ver­dict.

I am re­lieved that Peter Whit­tall, the tor­tured face of Pike River for all those days of dis­as­ter cov­er­age, is not go­ing to singly carry the can for those deaths and all the faults that caused them.

He suf­fered his grief – his crit­ics would say pos­si­bly guilt – in full pub­lic view.

Others, for in­stance, who trimmed the num­ber of mines in­spec­tors to save a pit­tance and thus trig­gered a set­ting for dis­as­ter have es­caped re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Yet to be hon­oured is the prime min­is­ter’s pledge to have the mine re­opened when cur­rent gas and ex­plo­sion risks have set­tled. If ever.

The con­tin­u­ing stress on ‘‘bring­ing out the bod­ies’’ is un­der­stand­able. But fi­nally, at best re­cov­er­ing what re­mains, and then the har­row­ing prob­lems in iden­ti­fy­ing their loved ones, are one last dis­as­ter se­quel griev­ing fam­i­lies might yet have to face.

Flash­back: A lift shaft in the wrecked CTV build­ing is de­mol­ished in the weeks af­ter the 2011 earth­quake.

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