The $110,000 compensation payouts to Pike River victims pale in comparison to those made after a deadly mine explosion in the US just seven months before the West Coast mining disaster.
On Friday, at Greymouth District Court, Judge Jane Farish ordered that Pike River Coal Ltd pay $3.41 million in reparation to the families of the 29 miners and contractors who died in the November 2010 mining disaster, and the two men who survived it. That equalled $110,000 each.
She also fined the company, which went into receivership shortly after the disaster, $760,000.
But those sums are dwarfed by the US$46.5m compensation that owners of the Upper Big Branch mine, in Raleigh County, West Virginia, paid after the April 2010 explosion which also claimed the lives of 29 men.
That sum was part of a US$209.3m package that mine owners agreed to pay to end a criminal investigation and civil proceedings. Mine manager Gary May was also jailed for 21 months after pleading guilty to conspiracy to impede America's Mine Safety and Health Administration's enforcement efforts at the mine.
Pike River Coal's chief executive at the time of the West Coast disaster, Peter Whittall, will next year stand trial accused of 12 health and safety failings.
Like Pike River, the Upper Big Branch mine was blighted with health and safety failings and poor ventilation; the latter which contributed to the subsequent deadly methane explosions.
Spokesman for the Pike River Families group Bernie Monk applauded the tough stance American authorities had taken, saying he would back any moves for greater punishments for those responsible for workplace deaths in New Zealand.
"New Zealand has to understand that the day is going to come when this is going to happen," he told the Sunday Star-Times.
"This [Pike River] wasn't an accident . . . people have to stand up and be accountable.
"[But] no money would even compensate [for our losses]. If you probably went back to the Americans, they would probably say, ‘OK, it is a big amount of money, but no money ever compensates missing your loved one.' "
Despite the $3.41m reparation orders placed on Pike River Coal, uncertainty surrounds just how much will be paid out.
The company's receivers, Price-waterhouseCoopers, have revealed that the company has only $500,000 in available funds and $156,000 in leftover insurance money.
Since Judge Farish's ruling, calls have been made for Pike River Coal's major shareholder, New Zealand Oil and Gas, to front with the required compensation.
After the explosion, the company provided $25m to keep Pike River afloat in the week after the tragedy, paying for the company to go into receivership, putting insurance proceeds to the contractors of Pike River to partially compensate for money owed to them and making a contribution to the victims' family trust.
Yesterday, NZOG chief executive Andrew Knight told the Star-Times it was unlikely the company would provide further money. "We quite clearly don't have a legal responsibility," he said. "We quite clearly were not in control. And there is evidence to that effect. I have my own shareholders to manage. And my shareholders are saying, ‘Well you've already spent $25m - you need to learn where to stop.' "
Monk said he was disappointed with NZOG's stance.
"It [compensation] would only be an insignificant scratch on their butt to what tax write-offs they are getting from Pike River."
Meanwhile, Monk confirmed that family members of the Pike River 29 were now determined to seek further compensation from the Government, saying they would seek redress similar to the families of those who died or were badly injured in the Cave Creek disaster. Fourteen people died and four suffered serious injuries after a poorly constructed Department of Conservation viewing platform in the Paparoa National Park collapsed on April 28, 1995. The Government later paid out $2.6m in compensation to the families.
When asked if the Pike River Families would follow suit, Monk replied: "Most certainly. [It's] very likely now. From the findings of what went down in the last two days [with the court case], it has left the door open for us to go down that avenue."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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