Pike River Mine Deaths Blamed on Owner, Government in NZ Enquiry

New Zealand’s Pike River mine tragedy that killed 29 men almost two years ago was “preventable” and caused by poor company management and ineffective regulation, according to a report into the disaster.

Pike River Coal Ltd., the mine’s owner, lacked the necessary systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal, the Royal Commission that investigated the tragedy said in its report released today. Ventilation and methane drainage systems were insufficient and “numerous” warnings of methane build-up to explosive volumes weren’t heeded, it said.

The 29 men died after a blast on Nov. 19, 2010, at the mine near Greymouth on the west coast of the South Island. It was the nation’s biggest mining accident since 1914 when 43 died in a North Island mine. The Pike River workers were trapped and probably died in the first explosion, while blasts over the following five days frustrated efforts to reach the men, and their bodies remain inside the mine.

“In relation to underground coal mining, New Zealand has had a tragedy every generation or so, after the lessons of previous tragedies have been forgotten,” the commission said in the report. “This time the lessons must be remembered. That would be the best way to show respect for the 29 men who never returned home.”

The Department of Labour, which oversees the industry, “didn’t have focus, capacity or strategies to ensure that Pike was meeting its legal responsibilities under health and safety laws,” the commission said. The Department should have stopped Pike from operating the mine, it added. Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson resigned after the report’s release.

Key Apology

“On behalf of the government, I apologize to the families, friends and loved ones of the deceased men for the role this lack of regulatory effectiveness played in the tragedy,” Prime Minister John Key said in a statement after the report was released in Wellington.

For five days, families and friends had kept a vigil for the miners, ranging from a 17-year-old on his first day in the mine to a 62-year-old near retirement. Their plight had prompted hope of a recovery effort akin to the October 2010 rescue of 33 men trapped in a shaft below the Atacama desert for 70 days.

The government should create a new regulator with a sole focus on health and safety across all industries, the commission said in the report. It recommends updated mining regulations and improvements to emergency incident management.

“Unacceptable Risks”

“The drive for coal production before the mine was ready created the circumstances within which the tragedy has occurred,” the report said. “Directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety and exposed the company’s workers to unacceptable risks. Mining should have stopped until the risks could be properly managed.”

Pike River Coal went into receivership because it couldn’t pay its debts, and in May this year the administrators agreed to sell the assets to state-owned Solid Energy New Zealand Ltd. The new owner told the families of the dead miners that there was no safe way of extracting the bodies.

Last month, former Pike River Chief Executive Officer Peter Whittall pleaded not guilty to 12 charges of failing to comply with the Health and Safety in Employment Act, brought by the Labour Department.

The three-man commission was headed by Justice Graham Panckhurst, a High Court judge based in Christchurch. It held extensive hearings from mid-2011 before preparing its report.

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