Former Pike River boss denies charges

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 14:52 25/10/2012
Peter Whittall
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
HOSTILE COMMUNITY: Peter Whittall.

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Former Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall has denied all charges of alleged health and safety failures over the mining disaster nearly two years ago.

His lawyer, Stuart Grieve, QC, told the Greymouth District Court today that he was entering on Whittall's behalf pleas of not guilty to all charges.

''Surprise, surprise,'' some families muttered in the gallery.

The former Labour Department, now part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, charged Whittall almost a year ago with 12 failures under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, alleging he failed to protect workers from harm relating to methane, strata and ventilation management, and mitigating explosion risk and impact. Each charge carries a maximum fine of $250,000.

On November 19, 2010, 29 miners and contractors were killed when the first of a series of explosions ripped through the West Coast underground coalmine.

Outside court, spokesman for most Pike families, Bernie Monk, said the families had expected Whittall to deny the charges.

"He's obviously defending something that we don’t agree with. He’s got to face up to the facts now and go on his own course." Whittall had promised he would bring the men home but had walked away from the families after the final explosion on November 24, Monk said.

"Peter left the families a long long time ago."

The men's bodies remained entombed in the mine under the Paparoa Range and no rescue or retrieval team had gone further than 300m along its 2.4km tunnel since the first explosion.

In a statement issued after his court appearance today, Whittall said he was sorry the tragedy "ever occurred".

"As I have said often in the past, I am deeply sorry for the losses that the Pike River families have suffered. I am very sorry that this tragedy ever occurred as it has affected the lives of so many good people," the statement said.

"On the separate matter of the Department of Labour charges, I am looking to move forward with these as they are also taking a huge toll on everyone involved, including me and my family."

Whittall's lawyers, Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, said in the statement that unlike others, Whittall had chosen to remain in New Zealand to cooperate with all the organisations involved in dealing with the aftermath of the explosions and the subsequent investigations.

"Also, unlike others, he has been unemployed since being made redundant by Pike River in 2011," the statement said.

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Whittall became the tragedy's public face as Pike River's chief executive, a role he took only seven weeks before the fatal explosion.

When the charges were laid almost a year ago, he claimed through his lawyers that he was the scapegoat as the sole individual to face charges, and he would fight them.

''Mr Whittall is a coalminer. He comes from a coalmining town and has worked in underground mines all his life. He maintains that he would never do anything to put men who worked with him at risk,'' his lawyer, Stacey Shortall, said after the department announced Whittall's charges last November.

Whittall was today remanded at large until a status hearing into the case on March 14 next year. Judge Jane Farish excused his appearance at that hearing.

However, she asked defence and prosecuting lawyers to develop a joint memorandum on when a defended hearing was likely to proceed, which she wanted them to file before the March hearing.

Whittall's appearance today was his first after four adjournments since the case was first called in January.

Valley Longwall International's in-seam drilling subsidiary, VLI Drilling, was charged with three failures over the disaster and pleaded guilty in July.

The Sydney-based company is due to be sentenced tomorrow in the Greymouth court.

The ministry's lawyers are today expected to seek leave from the court to file victim-impact statements in the VLI Drilling case.

It had employed three of the victims, driller Josh Ufer, 25, Ben Rockhouse, 21, who was the driller's offsider, and Joseph Dunbar, the youngest of the 29 men killed, who turned 17 the day before the mine exploded.

Pike River Coal Ltd (in receivership) has been charged with nine alleged failures over methane, strata and ventilation management, mitigating explosion risk and impact, plus health and safety management for contractors, subcontractors and their employees.

In July, the company's lawyer told the court it would take no part in the legal process other than appearing at sentencing if charges were proved.

The ministry said a "formal proof" hearing into Pike River Coal's charges was unlikely to proceed tomorrow.

- The Press

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