Pike body-recovery decision still elusive

00:00, Jan 15 2013

During the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States Government has, according to the Wall Street Journal, flown home more than 5000 dead soldiers rather than leaving the bodies at the mercy of enemy hands or to be buried in foreign soil. Despite the huge cost and at times high-risk missions involved, this now approaches the status of sacred obligation to fallen troops and their families, and is taken as seriously as any other military operation.

A similar commitment has been called for by West Coasters and in particular the families of the 29 men killed in the Pike River mine tragedy of November 19, 2010. The mine victims were not fighting far from home at their government's behest. They were, however, working in a West Coast coal mine in which health and safety features common in Australia were not legally required here.

The Royal Commission inquiry into the disaster pulled no punches in its final report, released late last year. It stated that the mine's ventilation and methane drainage systems could not cope with everything the company was trying to do. Further, "there were numerous warnings of a potential catastrophe at Pike River". One source was the reports made by the underground deputies and workers. For months they had reported incidents of excess methane (and many other health and safety problems). In the 48 days before the explosion there were 21 reports of methane levels reaching explosive volumes and 27 reports of lesser, but potentially dangerous, volumes. The reports of excess methane continued up to the morning of the tragedy. The warnings were not heeded.

The Government, then, does not bear primary responsibility for the disaster. Yet, its increasingly laissez-faire and weak regulatory environment and tragically inadequate inspection regime quite clearly contributed to it; a point acknowledged in an apology from Prime Minister John Key and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson's resignation from that particular portfolio before Christmas.

It also has a duty to the families of the "Pike River 29", to ensure that whatever is fair and reasonable to bring the remains to the surface is done. Taxpayer money is squandered on far lesser causes. More than that, the Government has an obligation to be upfront with the Pike River families about the chances of a recovery operation ever taking place. Mr Key has been prevaricating on this in a way that seems very unfair to those most involved.

Earlier last month he announced that the Government was unlikely to fund the recovery, because this was too dangerous and expensive. Then, in a late December flip-flop, he declared a new expert panel would be established to advise on the feasibility of body recovery. Whether this was based on cynical politics, fresh evidence or a pre-Christmas urge to offer something to the Pike River families remains to be seen. However, the new investigation will be costly and official advice about the dangers in going that deep into the mine has been unequivocal.

Clinging to false hope is no way to live. At some point the tough decision to move on will have to be made. Perhaps a more appropriate focus, would be to plan a suitable taxpayer-funded memorial at the mine entrance.


The Nelson Mail