Pike River – the past and future
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 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
aluminium 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.