Pike River miners exposed to 'unacceptable risk'
Labour Minister Wilkinson quits portfolioDEIDRE MUSSEN, TRACY WATKINS, JOELLE DALLY AND KATE CHAPMAN
Pike River mine disaster
Pike River Coal bosses dispute royal commission criticisms they failed to ensure the safety of mine workers prior to the November 2010 blast that killed 29 men.
A damning report released today stated the company’s directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety ‘‘and exposed the company’s workers to unacceptable risk’’ in their drive to produce coal. It also recommends sweeping changes after finding the Department of Labour failed.
Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson resigned from the portfolio immediately after the Royal Commission's report was released.
‘‘It is the commission’s view that even though the company was operating in a known high-hazard industry, the board of directors did not ensure that health and safety was being properly managed and the executive did not properly assess the health and safety risks that the workers were facing,’’ the report said.
It singled out former chairman, John Dow, saying he assumed things were under control ‘‘unless told otherwise’’, which was against good governance responsibilities.
Pike River Coal should have stopped mining, which only began two months before the explosion, until all the risks were properly managed, the report said.
However, the lawyer for some former Pike board members, including Dow, and former chief executive Peter Whittall, Stacey Shortall, said her clients strongly disagreed with those findings.
‘‘They maintain they acted appropriately.’’
Also, they had fronted up and given evidence to the inquiry to help it improve mining safety, knowing that it could expose them to the risk of prosecution, she said.
They expressed ``genuine and heartfelt sympathy’’ for the families’ loss of loved ones.
Shortall, who was speaking from New York, said she was yet to fully review the report to see whether it potentially prejudiced Whittall’s defence against 12 charges of health and safety failures regarding the November 2010 tragedy.
In September, his legal team sought a judicial review in the High Court in Wellington to force the royal commission to release its report to them prior to being made public so they could check if any adverse findings needed suppression because they prejudiced his court case.
They also sought to reconvene the inquiry hearings to allow cross-examination of three former Pike managers who gave statements after the public hearings finished but their appeal failed.
Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn said Whittall, who pleaded not guilty to the charges last month, had to be held accountable “but standing next to him should be [former Pike chief executive] Gordon Ward”.
Ward, named `Mr Pike’ during the inquiry, was involved with the mine for more than a decade and was its chief executive from May 2007 until seven weeks before the fatal 2010 explosion, when Whittall took over.
He refused to give written or verbal evidence to the royal commission and was unable to be forced because he was based on Australia’s Gold Coast.
Kokshoorn called on the Government to move fast on its promise to act on recommendations contained in the report.
“The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.''
“[The report] won’t bring our loved ones back but it is certainly one we must learn from. ‘’
He said Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson’s resignation from her post was “appropriate’’.
Wilkinson resigned as Labour Minister, effective immediately, following the release of the royal commission's report.
"The Pike River Mine tragedy of 19 November, 2010, happened on my watch as Minister of Labour," she said.
"While reports from the former Department of Labour did not advise me of concerns about their ability to administer the health and safety legislation, 29 men lost their lives in this tragedy.
"I feel it is the right and honourable thing to do [to stand down]."
About six minutes after the announcement she was standing down from the portfolio, Acting Labour Minister Chris Finlayson put out a statement welcoming the release of the royal commission report.
"I believe it is our duty to the 29 miners who died and their families to oversee the implementation of the royal commission's recommendations," he said.
Prime Minister John Key said Wilkinson's decision to resign was a personal decision in response to the magnitude of the tragedy. ‘‘It is the honourable thing to do. I considered it proper for me to accept her resignation from the Labour portfolio."
ROYAL COMMISSION FINDINGS
In the last two days before the explosion, there were 21 reports of methane levels reaching explosive volumes and 27 reports of lesser, but still potentially dangerous, volumes, the report said.
"The reports of excess methane continued up to the very morning of the tragedy. The warnings were not heeded."
It also found Pike River began operating the West Coast mine before its health and safety systems were adequate.
Drainage and ventilation systems "could not cope" with everything the company was trying to do, such as driving roadways through coal, drilling ahead into the coal seam and extracting coal by hydro mining.
The company had only one mine which was its sole revenue source and had to continually borrow to keep operations going.
Pike River's initial estimates the mine would produce more than a million tonnes of coal a year by 2008 were unrealistic; it had only shipped a total of 42,000 tonnes.
The commission also found the company's board of directors did not ensure health and safety was being properly managed and its executive managers did not properly assess the "unacceptable risks" workers were exposed to.
"Mining should have stopped until the risks could be properly managed."
The Department of Labour should have prohibited the mine from operating until adequate systems were in place.
It "assumed" Pike River was complying with the law "even though there was ample evidence to the contrary".
The Prime Minister apologised to the families of the 29 lost miners. He said the royal commission makes it clear fault lies with Pike River Coal.
"Because it did not follow good management and best practice principles, its health and safety systems were inadequate."
But he admitted the royal commission found the regulatory environment was not effective over a long period of time.
"On behalf of the Government, I apologise to the families, friends and loved ones of the deceased men for the role this lack of regulatory effectiveness played in the tragedy, he said.
He said there was no fresh evidence of a safe and credible plan to re-enter the mine to retrieve the miners' remains.
WORST MINING DISASTER IN 96 YEARS
The Pike River coalmine exploded on November 19, 2010, killing 29 men.
But for days New Zealand held out hope that they would be pulled out alive from the mine, deep in the Paparoa Range, 40 kilometres north of Greymouth.
Whittall told the media that the men could be sitting around an open pipe breathing fresh air while waiting for rescue.
But when the mine exploded a second time five days after the first, all hope of rescue was lost.
It was New Zealand's worst mining disaster in 96 years.
Key promised everything would be done to bring the men home.
- © Fairfax NZ News