There are many left with blood on their hands

Thursday, November 6, was a sad day for New Zealand. One of the saddest in its modern history. Not many people have emerged from that day without their reputations smeared in some way or other.

On Thursday, Solid Energy herded the families of 29 men killed four years earlier into a large room in Greymouth. The families had a fair idea what was coming but were still devastated by the news: the Pike River mine would stay shut, the bodies of their loved ones would remain trapped inside, presumably forever.

Also trapped inside that mine, at the end of the long "drift", is Solid Energy's reputation. The same coal dust that smeared the faces of the men who gave their lives to blacken the ledgers of the SOE's finances now smears the suits of the management types who trundled out after the announcement.

Interestingly, and maybe fittingly, the company has struggled to turn a profit since that calamity, posting large losses in the past few years.

That same coal dust has sullied the reputation of a man who stood by the families as hope turned to realisation and then tragedy.

Prime Minister John Key made much of his commitment to stand with the families and bring their loved ones home. No doubt he meant it at the time, and his political stocks rose on the back of that support and pledge.

Four years on all he can promise is that the mine will become conservation land, safe from mining and preserved as a tribute to 29 lost souls. But can the grieving families believe in that?

Key said that Thursday had been an incredibly tough day for the families. We would suggest that the day didn't go too well for him either.

The Government has pledged to back any investigation into who might be responsible for the tragedy.

But that's a little hard to comprehend and take when you consider that the Government is a major stakeholder and benefactor in what is a State Owned Enterprise.

Presumably they believe the hot torch of scrutiny will fall on the likes of disgraced Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall who, like Key, stood firm in support of the families and then missing men until their deaths were confirmed and subsequent investigations revealed the blood on his hands.

Any investigation worthy of the sacrifice these men made would have to acknowledge the part played by weak government oversight of poor industry practices.

The warnings were there, the canary in the coal mine was chirping loudly. No one was listening. As other reviews have found, there was not enough experience, let alone people, to ensure the mining company was meeting its obligations around mine and worker safety.

The Government, too, has blood on its hands.

Manawatu Standard