Can it ever be safe enough?

May 3, 2019

The re-entry to Pike River won’t go ahead today as planned:

Andrew Little announced on Thursday there has been a set back with the Pike River Mine re-entry due to elevated oxygen levels at the far end of the drift.

The minister described the elevated levels as “unpredicted and unexplained,” and because of this, the mine will not be entered, although there will still be an event for families.

“If you can’t explain it, you stop what you’re doing until you can,” he said.

The shift in oxygen levels means the atmosphere in the drift has changed and the air is no longer breathable. . . .

Calling off the re-entry is the right decision.

But it raises questions: can there be any guarantee that there wouldn’t be “unpredicted and unexplained” elevation in oxygen levels while people were in the drift and what would happen if there was?

That leads to another question: can it ever be safe enough?


Risking living to find dead

November 19, 2018

The decision to attempt to re-enter the Pike River mine drift has been widely praised.

The families deserve justice, the families deserve closure, and the families want their men back are among the reasons for the praise.

I can’t argue with the need for justice.

Twenty nine men lost their lives at work and that’s unjust but I doubt that any evidence that could result in justice for them could be found in the drift.

The families deserve closure.

There is no closure with grief, you just learn to live with it. Had Labour and NZ First not played politics by disagreeing with the previous government’s decision that the risks of re-entry were too great, the families would have been learning to live with it for years instead of stuck in limbo, pinning their hopes on re-entry.

They have been strung along by politicians and some media. If there’s no evidence and little if anything to be found of anyone whose life was lost, they will be further still from learning to live with their grief and there will be more agitation to go beyond the drift.

The families want their men back.

Some do, but not all. Marion Curtin, the mother of one victims says the attempt to re-enter is disgraceful.

Her son, Richard Holling, never came home after the November 2010 tragedy, but she wanted it to stay that way.

Some people might assume that all 29 affected families considered yesterday’s news as a “victory,” she said, but she was one of the silent many who disagreed.

Almost all reports since the disaster make it appear as if all the families support the re-entry. The ‘silent many’ are rarely mentioned.

She said the plan was an “appalling” waste of $36 million.

“I’m just so disappointed. I couldn’t believe that cabinet would sign this off,” she said.

Ms Curtin was deeply grateful for the money already spent at the site, but at the same time wondered how others can’t see “all the other important things in the country that the money could be spent on”.

Especially given the lack of certainty, she said, with nobody able to tell her exactly what the mine recovery experts would be looking for.

“I see it as sacrilege, really. To go in fossicking around for remains… to go in just to see what they find – I think it’s just disgraceful,” she said.

Ms Curtin loathed the fact it had become so political. She said the months leading up to last year’s election were especially challenging. “Some people liked that… the politicians climbing on board. I certainly didn’t. That was my son’s death they were playing with.” she said. . . 

It’s also playing with the lives of the people who will re-enter the mine.

Stacey Kirk writes of the high risks for re-entry:

But the biggest concern might be that the word “safety” appears to be becoming more subjective by the day.

“Safety is paramount” Little repeated ad nauseum. 

It’s hard to understand that if that were the case, why more people would be sent down there.

A mine filled with explosive gases, no matter how much are pumped out, surrounded by rock of variable stability and the simple fact it’s a coal mine – which in the best of situations are hazardous sites – there is no way it’s objectively safe.

The previous Government decided the danger threshold was more than it could stomach, on the back of technical advice. This Government has decided it’s comfortable with whatever risk is still there, on the basis of a different set of technical advice.

Without a very specific type of engineering degree, the differences between the two sets of advice are unlikely to be translatable to the wider public. Still, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the venture is far from risk-free. It’s debatable, but perhaps at least partially irrelevant, whether $30m dedicated to 29 families is a worthwhile cost.

But it’s without question that the risk of one more life, definitely isn’t.  

No employer should ask anyone to undertake the work and no politician should ask it of anyone either.

Health and Safety laws were changed as a result of the Pike River disaster and any Person in Charge of a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) is now liable if a life is lost or someone injured.

Nothing can be done to make no risk at all for anyone going into the drift and it makes it worse that one of the motivations for putting lives at risk is to bring back bodies, or what remains of them.

The living should never be asked to put their lives at risk to rescue the dead.


Still don’t risk lives to get dead

June 20, 2017

Families of the men who died in the Pike River mine explosion are understandably upset that video footage from the mine shows intact bodies when they’d previously been told fire would have consumed everything.

It is fair to question why all footage wasn’t shown earlier.

But whatever video shows, Solid Energy chief executive Tony King is right when he says it doesn’t make it safe for people to enter the mine:

“As we have previously said, there is nothing in any of the video footage that has been released that contradicts the ultimate decision that manned re-entry of the mine is unsafe”, said Mr King.

“The lack of damage evident in the video footage of Borehole 44 is consistent with what would be expected in the circumstances. We all saw the images of flames coming out of the shaft. These hot gases established an air current that drew air up the drift, into the fire and then up the shaft. The tendency in an underground fire is for it to burn back towards the source of oxygen i.e. the drift. The roof-fall at the end of the drift is probably due to heat damage, and extensive damage from there through to the shaft and in adjacent roadways would be expected. The inner parts of the mine would be oxygen deficient and there would have been no air current to draw the fire into those areas.” 

The directors of Solid Energy wrote an open letter last year explaining why it is unsafe to enter the mine.

Full information on the technical aspects of re-entry is on their website.

It would be helpful to counter conspiracy theorists if all video footage was released.

But that won’t change the fact that the mine is unsafe and no lives should be risked to rescue the dead.

 


Reparation but no revenge

December 13, 2013

It’s easy to understand why the families of the men who perished in the Pike River mine are angry.

Anger is part of grief and it must be particularly difficult to deal with when they know the deaths should have been avoidable.

Their anger has been refuelled by the announcement that 12 health and safety charges laid against Pike River mine boss Peter Whittall were have been dropped.

The two survivors and families of those who died will share $3.4 million in reparation.

They were asking for that from the government but now they’re angry that it’s coming from an insurance company.

They’re also angry that they’re not getting justice.

It’s understandable they can’t see through their grief to the logic of not pursuing a case which had little chance of success.

Crown lawyer Mark Zarifeh told Christchurch District Court on Thursday that much of the evidence gathered by the department would have been inadmissible, due to many witnesses being overseas and not making themselves available to be cross-examined. Because they are overseas, it would not have been possible to require them to attend the trial.

Mr Zarifeh said a trial lasting 16 to 20 weeks in Wellington would also be very expensive and not the best use of limited resources.

Mr Whittall and other directors and officers of Pike River Coal have offered to make a voluntary compensation payment of $3.4 million to the families of the victims and two men who survived the blast, about $110,000 each. It is money from the directors’ own insurance that would have been spent on a defence.

The lawyer representing Pike River families told Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint programme the chances of getting the decision not to prosecute Mr Whittall reversed are next to zero. Nick Davidson says he finds it appalling that no-one has been found responsible and the case has disintegrated over the passage of time. . . .

Its’ understandable that the families feel this is unjust and unfair.

They wanted someone to be held responsible and feel that the findings of the Royal Commission, which laid blame at several doors, was not enough.

But wasting millions of dollars and several months on court action that was likely to fail wouldn’t result in justice or fairness either.

There’s talk of further litigation which would simply waste more time and money.

The families have got the reparation they sought. They haven’t got revenge but there’s no guarantee a court would deliver that anyway.

They haven’t got what they wanted but they have got some money.

It won’t bring their men back nor compensate for their loss.

But it will make their lives a little easier and if they can get over their anger, they will come to understand that they’ll only compound the tragedy of their men’s deaths if they don’t make the most of the lives and opportunities, denied to those who died, but there ahead of those who remain.

This might be a little less difficult if unions and politicians would stop pouring petrol on the fire for their own, political ends.

Opposition MPs have condemned the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s decision to drop charges against former Pike River boss Peter Whittall.

They say a decision in the case should have been decided in court not be left up to some “back-room deal between lawyers” to decide whether someone was guilty or not. . .

Whittall’s lawyer Stacey Shortall said said any suggestion the payment offer from the Pike directors was in return for the charges being dropped was “absolutely wrong”.

In court, Judge Jane Farish stressed to media there had been no back-room deal.

But Opposition MPs and the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) argue otherwise . . .

The families’ anger is the normal and natural reaction to their loss.

The unions’ and politicians’ anger is merely fuelling the flames for their own ends.


Govt funding Pike river re-entry plan

September 3, 2013

Families of the men who died in the Pyke River mine have been given some hope that the bodies will be recovered.

The Government has approved conditional funding of a staged plan to re-enter and explore the main tunnel leading up to the rock fall at the Pike River Coal Mine, Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges has announced.

The decision follows approval in principle of the re-entry plan risk assessment by the Solid Energy Board.

Mr Bridges said the Government will fund the estimated cost of the plan, at $7.2 million.

“Our criteria are that any re-entry into the tunnel up to the rock fall is safe, technically feasible and financially credible. Safety is paramount, and the High Hazards Unit of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has reviewed the plan and is comfortable with it,” said Mr Bridges.

“This is a highly complex and technical operation and it will be carefully managed in stages, with a risk assessment undertaken at each stage. Ensuring the safety of workers is an absolute bottom line for the Government and Solid Energy.”

Mr Bridges said the scope of the operation did not include entry into the main mine workings which is blocked by the rock fall. 

“The Government cannot comment or speculate about re-entering the main mine until the tunnel re-entry has been successfully achieved,” Mr Bridges said. 

Some of the families might have accepted that body recovery is unlikely, others haven’t and that will be an obstacle in the grieving process.

This is a first step which will give families hope but it gives no certainty.

Awful as the waiting and wondering must be for the relatives and friends of the men who died, the safety and lives of rescuers must take precedence over the recovery of bodies.


Good news for the Coast

May 24, 2013

Conservation Minister Nick Smith’s decision to allow access to Bathurst Resources for its Escarpment Mining Project on the Denniston Plateau, near Westport is very good news for the West Coast.

“This approval is for an open-cast mine on 106 hectares of the 2026 hectares that comprise the Denniston Plateau. This area is not National Park, nor Conservation Park nor does it have any particular reserve status. It is general stewardship land, which is the lowest legal status of protection of land managed by the Department of Conservation. The area does have conservation values although there has been some disturbance from previous mining including roads, bulldozer tracks and an artificial reservoir. The area also has some infestation from weeds like gorse and broom,” Dr Smith said.

It’s not a big area and it’s not pristine land.

“The loss of conservation values is compensated by a $22 million package by Bathurst Resources. This will fund pest and predator control over 25,000 hectares of the Heaphy River catchment in the Kahurangi National Park, 4,500 hectares on and around the Denniston Plateau, as well as for historic projects on the Plateau itself. This is the largest ever compensation package negotiated by DOC for a mine or other commercial venture.

“I am also satisfied that the comprehensive conditions associated with this access agreement covering rehabilitation of the land, enhancement of water quality, health and safety, debris, rubbish and fire hazards, will minimise the adverse effects of the mine. The agreement also contains detailed provisions for monitoring environmental effects, bonds and insurance.

“I wish to signal, that in giving this approval, I do not consider it is acceptable to open-cast mine all of the Denniston Plateau. The plateau does have unique biodiversity and landscape values from its raised elevation, high rainfall and unusual land form. I wish to see some of the high value areas reserved and put into permanent protection.

“I am encouraged by the constructive discussions that have been taking place between mining companies, environmental, historic and recreational groups over recent months. A better way forward than having long protracted legal proceedings would be for the parties to come to a common agreement on the remaining areas of the plateau that should be set aside permanently for conservation and for mining.

“The Government will be working with all parties to try and find a ‘bluegreen’ long term plan for the whole Denniston Plateau that balances conservation protection with the need for jobs and development,” said Dr Smith.

While the usual suspects are unhappy with the decision, Economic Development and Energy Ministers Steven Joyce and Simon Bridges point out the benefits.

The decision today by Conservation Minister Nick Smith to approve the access agreement for Bathurst Resources’ Escarpment Mine near Westport is good news for jobs and economic growth on the West Coast, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce and Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges say.

The announcement follows an interim decision by the Environment Court in March that it was likely to grant resource consent to the open-cast mine subject to appropriate conditions being agreed.

“The decision by the Minister under the Crown Minerals Act is a significant step forward for this project and will be welcomed by many West Coasters as balanced and pragmatic,” Mr Joyce says.

“Once open the Escarpment Mine is expected to create 225 direct jobs and approximately $100 million each year will go to employees, suppliers, contractors and transport providers.

“This will be a significant injection into the economies of Buller, the West Coast and New Zealand.”

Mr Bridges says the mine will produce high-quality coking coal that can be exported overseas for the production of steel.

“The project aims to inject almost $1 billion into the New Zealand economy over six years and provide $45 million each year in royalties and taxes that the Government can invest back into key infrastructure such as schools and hospitals,” Mr Bridges says.

“Unlike what opponents might say, this is exactly the type of business investment New Zealand needs to grow jobs and incomes for New Zealanders.”

The Coast has had a series of economic blows.

The ending of sustainable logging more than a decade ago led to a loss of employment. More recently there’s been the tragedy and subsequent closure of the Pike river mine, job cuts by Solid Energy and the downstream job losses which resulted from all of this.

This decision will bring economic and social benefits with the environmental cost mitigated by the compensation package and strict requirements on how the company operates.

 


Pike River report

November 5, 2012

The Royal Commission into the Pike River mine tragedy lays most of the blame on management.

But it also found faults in the regulatory environment.

Prime Minister John Key said:

“I speak on behalf of the Government when I say I regret deeply what has happened, in terms of the lives lost and suffering caused.

“The Royal Commission made it very clear that much of the fault for the tragedy lies with Pike River Coal Ltd. Because it did not follow good management and best practice principles, its health and safety systems were inadequate.

“However, the Royal Commission also says the regulatory environment was not effective over a long period of time.

“On behalf of the Government, I apologise to the families, friends and loved ones of the deceased men for the role this lack of regulatory effectiveness played in the tragedy.

“Following the findings of the Royal Commission, Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson has tendered her resignation from that portfolio.

“Ms Wilkinson’s decision to resign is a personal decision in response to the magnitude of the tragedy. It is the honourable thing to do.

I considered it proper for me to accept her resignation from the Labour portfolio.

Chris Finlayson has taken over the Labour portfolio.

The Government broadly accepts all 16 of the Royal Commission’s recommendations that cover administrative reform, stronger regulation, changes to mining legislation, improving workplace health and safety, and emergency management.

“I believe it is our duty to the 29 miners who died and their families to oversee the implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations,” Mr Finlayson says.

The Royal Commission’s report is here.


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