'No love lost' between Whittall and managers

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 16/02/2012
Pike
DEIDRE MUSSEN/Fairfax NZ
ON THE STAND: Pike River coalmine's former general manager Doug White gives evidence at the inquiry.

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Bitter clashes between managers and Pike River coalmine's former chief executive Peter Whittall have been revealed at the inquiry into the disaster.

Pike River Coal former general manager Doug White continued to give evidence yesterday at the royal commission into the deaths of 29 men.

Only three days before the underground West Coast mine exploded on November 19, 2010, White wrote to a friend calling Whittall "a dodgy git" and a liar.

"I am now the GM for the whole site the previous GM did a number on the previous CEO and is now the CEO (and still a dodgy git)," he wrote.

He found it "very hard to work for someone who has made or overseen so many stuff-ups and blames everyone else (he tells lies too)".

White said it was the "final straw" when Whittall accused him of causing a 7 per cent drop in the mine's share price after making unwise comments to a visiting group of stockbrokers less than two weeks before the explosion.

When investigators interviewed White after the explosion, he said Whittall was "overbearing", "dictatorial" and publicly berated other staff.

"There was not a great deal of love lost between the team of managers and Peter Whittall, who called him a megalomaniac and dictatorial," an investigators' report said.

White said a number of managers raised concerns with him about Whittall. White agreed his "deep-seated attitude" towards the chief executive made it difficult to work with Whittall.

Whittall appeared at earlier hearings, but refused to give evidence at the inquiry's ongoing phase three hearings, which focus on what happened at the mine.

Other emails shown yesterday highlighted White's efforts to seek a new job in Australia, which he turned down a month before the November 19 explosion.

He became emotional, wiping tears from his eyes, while talking about his decision to stay at Pike River, where he started working in January 2010. He discussed it with his family and told himself to "harden up".

"I'm not saying I regret that decision but I made it I believe for all the right reasons."

His lawyer, John Haigh QC, objected to the job-hunting emails being shown to the inquiry.

However, commission chairman Justice Graham Panckhurst said a recurrent theme at the inquiry was the "revolving door" of Pike River managers, so probing White's plans to leave was warranted.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that less than 20 minutes after the mine exploded, White had emailed two people asking them to phone him over possible job opportunities.

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"At the time I sent those emails, I had no idea at all there was a major incident at the mine," he said.

The mine exploded at 3.45pm that day and White was told five minutes later that power and communication had been lost, noting a diesel-like smell outside his office afterwards.

Earlier, the inquiry at Greymouth District Court was told of major problems with the mine's gas monitoring sensors, including that it had only one sensor at the top of its 108-metre ventilation shaft linked to the surface control room and others were switched off.

White said he would have taken action had he known the mine's gas monitoring system was flawed.

He became visibly upset when then asked about how he checked safety indicators in the mine or ensured others monitored them.

"I was underground, as I said, up to three times a week constantly engaging with employees, extolling the virtues of safe work," he said.

- The Press

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