Pike River hearing: Laughing as mines inspector grilled

OLIVIA CARVILLE
Last updated 16:06 14/11/2011
Michael Firmin
IAIN MCGREGOR/The Press
ON THE STAND: Michael Firmin.

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Family members of lost miners could be seen laughing and shaking their heads during the cross examination of a Department of Labour health and safety inspector in an inquiry today.

Almost one year on from the explosion on November 19, the bodies of the 29 miners remain entombed and the mine remains unsafe for re-entry.

Some members of the public began dozing off during the afternoon's evidence.

Department of Labour health and safety inspector Michael Firmin took the stand as the first witness as the inquiry entered its third phase at the Greymouth District court.

Firmin is the sole underground mine inspector in New Zealand and told the hearing he had never been involved in a coalmine emergency prior to the Pike River explosion.

The inquiry heard that it was difficult for Firmin to assess if mines were complying with health and safety law because of time constraints and a lack of available specialist experts.

As Firmin discussed whether he took action over problems he identified at Pike River mine, some family members could be heard sniggering in the court room.

During the hearing's intermission Bernie Monk, whose 23-year-old son Michael died in the mine, said that he attended every inquiry to ensure "this never happens again."

"I come every day because I want my son not to die in vain."

Monk said this morning's session had not revealed anything new and he was shocked that Firmin was still the sole inspector for underground mines in New Zealand.

"What's really touched base with me is that it hasn't moved on," he said.

"It just points out how poor the system was. The safety wasn't there for our men. Our guys worked down there and their safety was disregarded."

Monk could be seen shaking his head in the public gallery during Firmin's examination.

MINES INSPECTOR GRILLED

Commission lawyer James Wilding asked Firmin about his inspection of the coalmine prior to the blast and the department's involvement since November 19.

"Did you ever check Pike River coalmine had a formal system for identifying risks or hazards?" Wilding asked.

Firmin said no.

Wilding then asked if the inspector inquired about the number of workers at Pike River coalmine that were involved in hazard or risk assessment.

To which Firmin said no.

"In the time that you have been an inspector has the department ever reviewed the process you take?" Wilding questioned.

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Firmin answered no and told the inquiry that inspectors had "a lot of flexibility in the sense of the approach we take".

In one of his final questions on the stand, Firmin told the court his inspection of the Pike River coalmine had never been the subject of a review by the department.

Commission lawyer Simon Mount said police and officials had spent 50,000 hours investigating the tragedy and interviewed more than 250 people. He said there were about 70,000 documents collected in the investigation process; the majority of which would be relevant to this stage of the inquiry.

Phase three of the inquiry would look into the immediate cause of the explosion and Mount would focus on the health and safety systems at the mine.

In September 2010 Pike River coalmine started experimenting with hydro mining systems. Mount said this type of mining "carried with it particular risks and hazards" that the inquiry would investigate.

"Clearly it is an area that warrants examination," he said.

In his closing statement Mount acknowledged the anniversary of the tragedy this Saturday by saying it was a "difficult time for many".

He said the commission intended no disrespect to be sitting at this time but the main purpose of the inquiry was to "find the truth for those closest to the event".

Nine witnesses would take the stand during this phase of the hearings, including health and safety inspectors from the department and a Japanese expert in hydro mining.

- The Press

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