Mine chief 'should have apologised'

KEITH LYNCH AND GILES BROWN
Last updated 05:00 06/12/2010

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Pike River Coal has defended itself against unions who say chief executive Peter Whittall is no hero and the company may yet be culpable in the deaths of 29 miners.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly told a Canterbury Workers Educational Association function in Christchurch on Friday that Whittall should have apologised for the tragedy.

"He's now been called a national hero, but he's the CEO of that company and he hasn't apologised," she said.

"Even if the company did everything right, if it was me, I'd say: `I'm the employer. This has happened and I'm really sorry. I don't know why, but I'm going to find out why'. But he hasn't said that."

Questions about what happened had not been asked, Kelly said.

"This is a very serious event. That mine was open for just over a year. There are 29 miners dead. We've got to be more mature about who we honour, how we think about things, what we demand. If that had been public Department of Conservation [land] we would have gone after them and said what had happened.

"But because it's a company and because the CEO gets to sit next to the Prime Minister at the memorial service, the hard questions have not been asked."

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) national secretary Andrew Little acknowledged Whittall had not sought hero status, but said failures on the part of mine managers or "the guys underground" could have caused the disaster.

"We need to reserve judgment until we get credible answers to questions about why it all happened.

"The company has been treated as somewhat heroic and in a way I think it's somewhat undeserving."

Whittall said he was not "interested in commenting on what other people think of me".

"It hasn't been about me," he said.

The various inquiries under way would seek to answer questions about culpability, but it was almost impossible to begin answering them until the mine could be entered and investigated.

Pike River Coal chairman John Dow said Whittall and the company wanted answers as much as anyone.

"His approach has been to answer all questions honestly as they have been asked," Dow said. "His objective has been to get to the bottom of this and co-operate with the authorities."

The company was preparing to do its own inquiry using independent experts, he said.

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