No ifs, not buts, no exemptions

August 28, 2019

Giving the Pike River re-entry plan a safety exemption would set a dangerous precedent:

The Government’s intention to exempt the Pike River Mine re-entry team from safety laws and regulations is concerning and inappropriate, National’s Pike River Re-entry spokesperson Mark Mitchell says.

“One of the most important failures identified by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Pike River was the unsafe design of the mine in not having two means of egress.

“The regulations were re-written in 2016 to specifically address this. It is unacceptable for the Government to now consider bypassing the very laws and regulations that were put in place to prevent a repeat of this awful tragedy. This shows a complete lack of leadership.

It’s not just lack of leadership, it’s lack of judgement and hypocrisy.

Labour is supposed to be the party that cares about workers.

Worker safety should be of paramount concern, no ifs, no buts and definitely no exemptions.

“The Minister for Pike River Re-entry, Andrew Little, has confirmed in Parliament that the Pike River Agency is seeking exemptions from the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, and its regulations, to allow the re-entry to continue.

“It was disappointing to see a Minister of the Crown, under Parliamentary Privilege, mocking long-time mining journalist Mr Gerry Morris, a proud West Coaster with a long history of involvement in mining.

“The Minister should have fronted up and explained to New Zealanders why the Government has decided to not adopt new safety regulations that were put in place to prevent any further loss of life at Pike River.

“The advice that National had in Government was that it was always too dangerous to re-enter the mine. Our position has always been that we’re not against a safe re-entry of the drift provided it is done well within new safety guidelines.

“I am extremely disappointed and have lost all confidence in the Government, which now appears to be prioritising an entry at all costs, rather than a safety first approach.”

I have been opposed to re-entry attempts from the start because the living should never be put at risk for the dead.

Entertaining the possibility of re-entry to the mine and retrieval of bodies by the three parties in government is playing politics and prolonging the uncertainty for grieving families.

Inadequate attention to health and safety was a major contributor to the Pike River tragedy.

The only good to come from it was a change of law to ensure far better protection for workers.

That law prevented any attempts at re-entry in the past because the safety of the workers could not be guaranteed. It ought to bring an end to this attempt too.

Kwiiblog has Gerry Morris’s article here.

 


No more lives should be risked

November 26, 2018

The Listener editorial says there should be no more lives put at risk in the Pike River mine.

It goes without saying that New Zealanders have enormous sympathy for the families of the 29 men who died in the Pike River Mine disaster. However, it does not automatically follow that all New Zealanders think there should be an attempt to enter what is sadly now more tomb than mine.

That such an attempt seems set to be made is the latest turn in a chain of events whose origins lie in actions and inactions long before the mine exploded eight years ago. It is unarguable that the mine operator, Pike River Coal, bears primary culpability because no agency had more knowledge, more ability to affect the workplace culture and more responsibility for the safety of the men underground than the company. It abjectly failed its workers, contractors and their families.

Statutory health and safety provisions that should have been a back-up had been eroding under the previous Labour Government and continued to do so under National. One of the findings of the royal commission into the tragedy was that mining inspectorate services had been so run down that by the time of the disaster, New Zealand had just two mines inspectors, and their travel budget was so constrained that their invigilation was patchy. 

There were so many failings that “accident” is hardly the right word to describe the disaster that occurred on November 19, 2010. This tragedy could have happened at any time to any shift of miners.

It was a disgrace that when Pike River Coal, then in receivership, was convicted of charges relating to the explosion, the company went under leaving more than $3 million in reparations unpaid. WorkSafe New Zealand then laid 12 health and safety charges against mine boss Peter Whittall. Yet they were dropped in return for his insurance company providing the reparations the mine company failed to make. The Supreme Court last year ruled that the deal was “an unlawful agreement to stifle prosecution”. However, it may still never be possible to hold any person or entity to account. As with the collapse of the Canterbury Television building, the denial of even an attempt at justice rankles with New Zealanders.

It was a further disgrace that New Zealand First and Labour chose to politicise the tragedy at the last election, with Winston Peters promising to be one of the first to re-enter the mine. His swagger implied that cowardice, not caution, was the problem. Never fear, Peters would go where Mines Rescue had not been allowed to tread. This determination to re-enter the mine flies in the face of the only positive development to have come out of the disaster – a new zeal for health and safety.

To unnecessarily risk more lives in the same mine, however much some of the families want it to happen, undermines the very principle this tragedy so firmly established: that safety is paramount.

Through all this, some of the victims’ families have heroically battled on, determined to see responsibility sheeted home somewhere, somehow. Their efforts have been laudable. The idea, however, that a team will be able to find in the devastated, burnt mine evidence that will lead to a prosecution seems illusory and the recovery of human remains sadly unlikely. Regardless, politicians have for years kept the families’ hopes dangling. This seems more cruelty than kindness. The closure the families seek might be further advanced had it been given more of a chance.

The $36 million cost of re-entry would not be worth mentioning, even to those who think the money could be better spent on reducing the rising road toll or child poverty, if the chances were higher that it will serve any purpose except political triumphalism. Little has spoken of “knowing when to call it quits”.

Arguably, and regrettably, that point has probably passed. There must be no more lives put at risk.

John Roughen also argues against any attempt at re-entry and makes the point, the announcement so far isn’t to go very far at all:

Just as in 2013, they don’t propose to go further than the point where the tunnel has collapsed about 2km in. The only difference is that five years ago this plan was reportedly estimated to cost $7.2 million. Last week we were told it will cost $36m. This is madness. . .

But it’s not just the dollar cost, it’s the potential cost in more lives that really matters.

“Safety is paramount,” they all say. If you listened closely last week, they’re not definitely going further than a second chamber, a trifling 170m into the 2km tunnel. Beyond that, they say, it might not be safe. In other words, nothing has changed but the bill.

The company, successive governments, the union and even workers themselves who didn’t act on justifiable fears about safety, are to a greater and lesser extent culpable.

The only good thing to have come out of this disaster is much stricter legislation that makes everyone involved responsible for health and safety.

Even without that, to risk further lives for the very, very slight hope there will be evidence that could be used, or bodies to be returned, can not be justified.


The other families

October 1, 2018

The costs of the Pike River recovery agency are high and rising:

Pike River Recovery Agency has spent $2.5 million in its first financial year, including nine staff paid more than $100,000 a year.

And its boss warns that re-entering the West Coast coal mine, the site of a 2010 explosion that cost 29 lives, might cost millions of dollars more than its original $23 million budget, as the complexities of the operation become apparent. . .

And what of the human cost, not just for the families who always feature in the news, the ones who want the mine re-entered; what of the other families who don’t?

This letter to the editor of The Listener is from one of the other mothers:

My son died in the PIke River mine accident and I couldn’t agree more with the views of Heather Levack (Letter July 28). Not all the 29 families seek recovery of any remains. I am vehemently opposed to it for many reasons, cost being one of them.

My understanding is  the $23 million budget quoted is for only for re-entering the drift and not the actual mine where it is presumed any remains are.

Millions of dollars have already been spent. Any more should go on the living – perhaps on health services in Westland and elsewhere, or on education or on low-cost housing.

I was disgusted but not surprised when Pike River was used for politically before the last election, the present situation being the outcome .

Lack of sensitivity and compassion is distressing to most who are affected by these tragedies. . .

Losing a child in tragic circumstances and living with and accepting that loss is not alleviated by the unwelcome intrusion of those who wish to ‘use’ those circumstances . . My son’s death for me is neither about political grandstanding nor entertainment – Marion Curtin. 

Michael Wright interviewed this mother for a story on bereaved  parents who want to let the past be:

When it got really bad, Marion Curtin would turn on Concert FM. Any sort of music worked, really, but Curtin was a devout Radio New Zealand listener, so the public broadcaster was her first choice. It wasn’t the music she was interested in so much, though. Over on RNZ National the words ‘Pike River’ could be uttered at any moment. On Concert FM, you only needed to avoid the news bulletins.

Curtin, from Christchurch, has spent almost eight years in quiet opposition to what the public could be forgiven for mistaking was the united front of the Pike River families. For most of that time, a group of victims’ family members have fought for accountability over the tragedy and lobbied governments to re-enter the mine to recover the bodies of the 29 who died there, including Curtin’s son, Richard Holling​.

Their efforts have commanded considerable media coverage. This month, stories have focused on the efforts of experts in reviewing options for possible re-entry into the mine drift.

It’s not hard to find stories in favour of re-entry. The Listener letter, this story, and a long ago email read on breakfast TV are the only ones I’d come across before this which give the view of the other parents, those who oppose the idea of attempting re-entry.

Curtin finds the idea abhorrent.

“I don’t understand [the pro-re-entry] view. To me it’s an irrational one. Why they think there are bodies to bring out just beggars belief as far as I’m concerned. The amount of money that’s been spent I think is disgusting. To me it’s just sacrilege. It’s like grave-robbing. It’s awful.”

Mostly, Curtin has kept her counsel on this. Occasionally she has spoken to the media, or written letters to the editor of the Press . But maintaining a public opposition to a prevailing view isn’t easy.

“It’s very hard to go against what is perceived as the majority,” she said. “Because I would much rather not be doing it. I do it to stop an inaccurate picture being painted of ‘the families’. It’s very seldom that someone speaks up and says to them ‘enough’s enough’.”

Curtin has been resolute throughout that the explosion was an accident and retribution against Pike River bosses was pointless. As soon as the re-entry question was raised, she was against that too. Though she received some “positive” feedback when she did speak publicly, she isn’t in contact with any other like-minded bereaved families. Her two daughters and wider family share her view. . .

It was some comfort after the deaths of our two sons to know that no-one was at fault.

Those grieving the loss of the men killed in Pike River don’t have that comfort and the strong wish of some of them to find answers is understandable.

But at what cost and not just in dollar terms?

The re-entry has been politicised by Labour and New Zealand First which is despicable.

Would they have done so if media coverage had made it clear that the campaign for re-entry was not supported by all the families?

Would knowing that the on-going publicity makes matters worse for some of the families have influenced public opinion? Would that in turn have stopped the politicalisation of the tragedy?

All the re-entry planning has done is prolong the agony for all the families – those wanting to let their dead be and those wanting to find answers.

But what if someone gets up the drift and finds nothing? Will the pressure then be to enter the mine itself?

What if someone dies in the attempt?

The living should never be put at risk to recover the dead.

Had there been more balanced coverage, the public support of the agitating families would have been more muted and that might, just might, have stopped the politically motivated and misguided support for a re-entry attempt.


For the sake of the other families

December 5, 2017

Each time I read or hear reports about Pike River families agitating for a retrieval of the bodies of the men who were killed there I wonder about the other families.

You’d not know it from most reports, but some of the bereaved families have accepted that their men are dead and the mine where they died will be their grave.

How hard it must be for them to get on with their lives when time and time again the disaster and the ongoing saga of re-entry hit the headlines.

The latest news is that the liability for anything that goes wrong in a re-entry will like with the Pike River chief executive, not the Minister for Pike River, Andrew Little.

Documents on the Pike River Recovery Agency show that while the Minister will decide whether a re-entry goes ahead, it will be the agency’s chief executive who will be liable if any re-entry goes wrong, National Party Workplace Relations Spokesperson Amy Adams says.

“This Government has continued to make entering Pike River a political decision but this is patently wrong. While there’s been lots of talk about how Mr Little will be responsible for his decisions, it will be some poor senior public servant who carries the can.

“It is wrong to put a Chief Executive in this position. He or she will have to carry out what their political masters decide in a very unsafe environment. Why would any sensible person put their hand up for that job?”

Sensible or not, a CE would have to resign rather than carry out a directive in the knowledge he or she was putting lives at risk.

Ms Adams says the Coalition went against official advice which was to make the final decision-maker independent of politicians.

“That would have been the responsible approach which fairly reflected the dangers of re-entering the mine. This undermines the very health and safety laws which were strengthened in the wake of the Pike River disaster to try and ensure it never happens again.”

The one good thing to come out of the disaster was the strengthening of health and safety laws. It would be a travesty if they were to be breached by order of a politician.

Ms Adams also notes that the mission of the agency has changed from the Government’s pre-election commitments.

“Up until now all their talk has been about manned re-entry into the mine. Now the papers tell us it’s about achieving manned re-entry of the drift only, all bar 400 metres of which has already been explored.”

The families’ quest for answers is understandable but that quest can’t risk more lives.

John Armstrong writes that Little’s real role as Minister is to let the families down gently:

Little will have to judge what level of risk is acceptable. The answer to that question has been staring Labour in the face. The answer is none.

It is both morally reprehensible and incomprehensibly stupid to place another human being in an environment where death and injury have already proved to be beyond human control.

Rather than humming the Red Flag in solidarity with the miners’ families, Little should be engaged in quiet persuasion that their wish to be reunited with their loved ones risks others’ loved ones suffering the same fate.

At most —and purely to save everyone’s face — a recovery team might be permitted to go part way up the drift.

For his own and Labour’s sake, the minister responsible for Pike River Re-entry needs to become the minister for No Re-Entry to Pike River, if not in name then most definitely in actions.

It is his job to gently puncture the over-inflated hopes of the families.

He needs to get the families to take ownership of the reality that re-entry cannot be a happening thing. He needs to lull them into believing they made the decision —not him nor a faceless bureaucrat chosen to run the Pike River Recovery Agency.

Executing what would be the Mother of All U-turns will require some very deft politics on Little’s part.

Thursday’s Supreme Court’s ruling that WorkSafe’s decision to withdraw its prosecution of Pike River mine boss Peter Whittall, in exchange for payments to the victims’ families, was unlawful provides an unexpected opportunity for everyone to come to their senses.

The families should rejoice in at last receiving the justice so long denied them. They should view it as a cue to drop their demand for re-entry.

That won’t happen. The families are victims alright. They are victims of politicians who have exploited their emotions without caring one jot for the consequences.

There can be no sympathy for Little even if he has deluded himself into believing he is doing the right thing by the families. . . 

The right thing by all the families is to accept, as some of them have, that the risks of re-entry are too high.

A former union head, in what’s supposed to be the workers’ party should know that safety is paramount and each new announcement is a move in that direction.

Each new announcement from the government is a step away from the original irresponsible rhetoric of unconditional re-entry.

Each new announcement includes ifs, buts and acknowledgements that safety must come first.

The honourable and sensible course of action now would be to admit that no-one can guarantee that re-entry would be safe and in doing so to help those families still stuck in the early stages of grief to accept, as the others have, that the mine where their men died is their grave.

When my first son died we waited months for the post mortem results. He’d been dead for longer than he’d lived when they finally arrived and they were somewhat of an anti-climax.

That was partly because we’d hoped the post-mortem might uncover some clues to the condition which killed him that the numerous tests during his life had not and it didn’t.  But it was also because it made me realise that regardless of what the report said, he was still dead and nothing could make that better.

The death of a baby as a result of illness for which no-one was to blame, is different in many ways from deaths in an unsafe workplace for which someone should have, but has not, been held responsible.

But no matter how it happens, death is death and it only compounds the loss if those who survive are stuck, focusing on what they’ve lost and in doing so losing what they’ve got.

Continuing to pretend that a re-entry would be possible is continuing to perpetuate a lie and it’s helping to keep some of the families stuck.

For their sakes and the sakes of the other fmailies who are no longer stuck, the government needs to be honest, stop wasting money and prolonging the inevitable announcement that any risk of life is too high.


Mining personal grief for political ends

November 19, 2017

When politicians make promises do you take them at their word?

Under MMP that’s harder because they can always use the excuse, that was their policy but had to let it go during coalition negotiations.

But if it was a promise made by the two parties in government and their coalition partner outside government that one can’t be used.

In August, leaders of Labour, United Future, the Maori Party and the Green Party signed a commitment to reenter Pike River mine.

National, rightly, put lives before politics:

Environment Minister Nick Smith responded to the commitment and said the parties were either making empty promises to the families or proposing to water down a law intended to prevent future workplace tragedies. 

“It is a hollow political stunt for parties to promise manned re-entry of the mine by the end of 2018,” he said.  

“It would be reckless for politicians to override the 800-page detailed assessment that concluded that manned entry deep into this drift was too risky to life.

“There is no cover-up. There is no conspiracy. Pike River was a horrible industrial accident that unnecessarily killed 29 men.

“The greatest duty we owe the memory of these men is to take the risks of explosions in gassy coalmines seriously and to comply with the new workplace safety laws that stemmed from the Royal Commission of Inquiry [into the Pike River Mine Tragedy].”

Winston Peters said he’d be one of the first to go back into Pike River and manned entry was one of New Zealand First’s bottom lines.

Such promises are oh so easy in opposition, but what happens when the reality of government bites?

Pike River Mine minister Andrew Little says he cannot guarantee a re-entry of the mine and has told family members that he will do what he can but safety is the top priority. . . 

“Ultimately, and the families are very clear, the first principle of the set of principles that are governing what we do is safety, the safety of anybody involved in the re-entry project. I’m not going to put anybody at undue risk. I’m simply not going to.”

He did not intend to legislate for any exemption to the health and safety laws or immunity from liability for the Pike River Agency.

Safety was the priority of the previous government in the face of harsh criticism from the Pike River families and then-opposition parties supporting them.

That was the right position.

The Pike River disaster was a tragedy. There are many unanswered questions on how it happened and the shortcoming that led to it happening.

Some of the answers to those questions might be found if it was possible to safely reenter the mine.

But safely is and must always be the operative word.

The bottom line that National and the mine owners stuck to still stands: no lives must be endangered, no lives must be lost, to retrieve the dead.

Some families have accepted this.

Some have not and put their faith in the politicians who promised them manned entry would be undertaken.

Little will be criticised for his safety-first stance, but this time it’s the right one.

The wrong one was making a promise that he and the other politicians, including his leader, Jacinda Ardern, should never have made.

Those politicians were mining personal grief for political ends.

It was despicable behaviour.

 


Immoral victory

August 16, 2017

Pike River families are hailing today as a “moral victory” after MPs from four parties pledged to act immediately to re-enter the West Coast mine if in government.

Environment Minister Nick Smith calls it a political stunt that doesn’t change the risks.

 . . Prime Minister Bill English gave a commitment to the Pike River families earlier this year that the Government would see through safe, unmanned entry to the area of the drift that had not been accessed.

“This work would be delayed if taken off Solid Energy and given to some new agency. It is a hollow political stunt for parties to promise manned re-entry of the mine by the end of 2018. A political statement does not change the risks in the mine. It would be reckless for politicians to override the 800-page detailed assessment that concluded that manned entry deep into this drift was too risky to life.

“This political commitment of manned entry of the complete drift by the end of 2018 could not be done under New Zealand’s workplace law – a law supported by these very parties. They are either making empty promises to the Pike families or are proposing to water down a law intended to prevent future workplace tragedies.

“There is no cover-up. There is no conspiracy. Pike River was a horrible industrial accident that unnecessarily killed 29 men. The greatest duty we owe the memory of these men is to take the risks of explosions in gassy coalmines seriously and to comply with the new workplace safety laws that stemmed from the Royal Commission of Inquiry.”

 

Employment law was changed because of the Pike River disaster. Under that law no-one in Solid Energy could countenance anyone entering the mine and changing the law to allow it would be a travesty.

The pledge is an immoral victory and the undertaking by the MPs is irresponsible. All it does is give false hope to the bereaved.

No lives should be risked to bring out whatever remains of the men who died in the mine.


Time to let Pike River victims rest

November 7, 2014

It’s been nearly four years since the Pike River mine disaster.

Solid Energy’s decision to not re-enter the mine will have disappointed some family members, but the company could not risk more lives.

The father of one of the Pike River Mine explosion victims says Solid Energy’s decision to stay out of the ruined mine will finally let his family move on.

Solid Energy board chairwoman Pip Dunphy said today “potentially fatal risk factors” made the mine too dangerous to re-enter.

Geraldine couple Rod and Christine Holling lost their 41-year-old son, Richard, as a result of an explosion at the West Coast mine on November 19, 2010. The Hollings have expressed their wish for Richard’s remains to be left untouched in the mine, saying that knowing where his remains were allowed them “closure”.

Other families of miners killed in the mine issued a joint statement today expressing disappointment with the state-owned mining company’s decision not to recover the miners’ remains, but Rod Holling said the announcement was “good news”.

“Our biggest fear is that someone else will get killed [re-entering the mine] and who will be responsible?” 

Holling was sceptical of former UK mining inspector Bob Stevenson’s claims the mine could be safely entered. He also believed mining companies would learn lessons about health, safety and mine construction from the disaster. . .

Learning and acting on the lessons could save other lives, and not just in mining. Rebecca Macfie’s book on the disaster has lessons for every business.

Families of the Pike River Mine victims met this morning with mine owner Solid Energy and Prime Minister John Key, only to be told the plan to re-enter the mine tunnel would not go ahead.

Their faces were strained and tears were visible after leaving the meeting, even though they had gone in almost certain the news would be bad.

Bernie Monk, whose son Michael died in the mine, said he would continue to investigate “to a certain degree” but acknowledged the fight might be over.

“I’ve got to start asking myself, do I want to go through another three or four years of agony.” . . .

I hope the answer to that question is no.

Prime Minister John Key has said the taxpayer would fund a civil case against parties involved in the disaster it Crown Law thinks it could succeed.

That would help the families and friends who are, justifiably, angry that no-one has been charged over the actions which led to the disaster.

Whether or not that happens, the decision not to re-enter the mine means it is time to let the 29 victims rest where they died, difficult as that might be for those who loved them.


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