PM: Panel will assess Pike mine re-entry

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 05:00 10/01/2013

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The prime minister has done an about-face to put body recovery of the 29 men killed in the Pike River tragedy firmly back on the table.

John Key wrote to Solid Energy before Christmas saying a new expert panel was being set up to advise the Government on the feasibility of body recovery at the underground West Coast mine.

The men died after an explosion at the mine in November 2010.

Key had reiterated to Pike families at a meeting in Greymouth last month the Government was unlikely to fund body recovery because his experts said it was too dangerous and expensive.

However, he admitted the families were frustrated by his stance because their experts were more optimistic about it.

As a result, a panel of mining experts from diverse backgrounds, including from Solid Energy, Mines Rescue Trust, Pike families and the Government's High Hazards Unit, would be brought together to try to get a consensus on whether it was possible plus its risks and costs.

Key wrote that he was "very keen for the families to have closure one way or another as soon as reasonably possible".

He also confirmed the Government would pay for all out-of-pocket costs to explore the mine's 2.3 kilometre tunnel, where some bodies might remain, if a viable plan was developed that the Government's High Hazards Unit backed.

It included paying for the families' international mining experts to return to New Zealand to meet other experts to develop a tunnel exploration plan.

Pike families were "ecstatic" with the prime minister's offer.

"Certainly it's a turnaround in that he is finally listening to us instead of sticking to his expert's advice," said Bernie Monk, who lost his son Michael, 23, in the fatal explosion.

Monk and one of the families' lawyers, Colin Smith, took Key aside after last month's meeting to plead for experts from all sides to get together to discuss tunnel re-entry and body recovery.

"I said ‘Your corner is saying no and our corner is saying yes'. I told him ‘You and I are going to be arguing about this for the next 10 years. We aren't going away'."

Monk, spokesman for most of the families, said he phoned some families to tell them about Key's letter just before Christmas. They were ecstatic.

If the expert panel ruled out body recovery, families would accept their consensus, he said.

Pike's former safety and training manager Neville Rockhouse, said Key's changed stance gave all families hope to know "once and for all" if body recovery was feasible.

"This ... is the best news the Pike 29 families could have ever wished for."

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Rockhouse lost son Ben, 21, in the blast. Son Daniel, 24, survived.

TIMELINE

November 19, 2010 - Pike River coalmine explodes, killing 29 of the 31 men in the underground West Coast mine. An electrician enters the mine to investigate 23 minutes later but withdraws, overcome by fumes, after driving within metres of survivor Russell Smith lying about 1500 metres along the tunnel.

January 13, 2011 - Police halt body-recovery efforts because it is too dangerous to re-enter the mine. No-one has re-entered since the electrician on the day of the first explosion.

January 14, 2011 - Prime Minister John Key says the mine will be sealed, ending chances to recover the men's bodies. He denies promising the bodies would be recovered and says he is committed to do everything possible to attempt it.

July 2, 2011 - Mines Rescue staff complete a temporary seal about 180m along the mine's tunnel and walk 300m in, the farthest anyone has reached since the day of the explosion.

May 10, 2012 - Solid Energy agrees to buy the mine for $7.5 million but body recovery will proceed only as part of developing it into a commercially viable coalmine. Chief executive Don Elder tells the victims' families that body recovery is extremely unlikely, which two Australian mining experts confirm.

November 9, 2012 - Three international experts working for the families say body recovery is possible.

December 25, 2012 - Families receive a copy of a letter by Key to Solid Energy on December 20, highlighting plans for an expert panel representing the Government, Solid Energy, the Mines Rescue Trust and the families to assess the feasibility of re-entry into the main mine workings for body recovery.

- The Press

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