Faults were miners’ death warrants
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 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.’’ – A S King