Dignity within a disgraceful outcome

16:00, Nov 07 2014

The Pike River families have held faith to an extent that deserves admiration as well as empathy. 

When the Pike River families desperately needed to hear just one thing - that their loved ones were alive after the mine explosion - nobody could say that. But nobody said abandon hope, either.

So the 29 families clung for hours, reaching into days, to a hope that died slowly and with exquisite cruelty, mutating from a test of faith to something they had to fend off for sanity's sake.

Next came came a different, heartbroken, hope - for accountability, future safeguards, and the bodies of their husbands, partners, sons and dads to be returned to them.

Now, after four turbulent years of conflicted messages, extravagant delays and compromised outcomes, these families who have tried so hard to honour the miners, support one another and to heal, have received the hard message. No, Solid Energy has told them, the bodies will not be retrieved because it simply cannot be done safely. For some it's good news, though for most it's a decision they reject as wrongheaded even though they know they must accept they have done all they could.

WorkSafe NZ and some international mines experts argued recovery was achievable, and for a while last year it seemed that a plan to work on re-entry was a goer. But the bottom-line decision rested with Solid Energy, which insists safety concerns compel its decision.


The Greens portray this decision as a case of corporate ass-covering, with West Coast MP Kevin Hague asking: "What director on a board whose job it is to maximise profitability and who is likely to be worried about personal liability would ever want to bear that risk?" Harsh, considering the relationship between liabilities and lives is something that Pike River Coal Ltd failed to appreciate sufficiently. There's no shortage of scary scientific and social evidence to support this view.

As for accountability, we're assured an underresourced inspectorate has been fixed up, the Pike River company has been fined but is insolvent, the case against chief executive Peter Whittall was deemed too weak to prosecute, the Government rejects calls for corporate manslaughter laws and instead suggests civil prosecution is the way to go.

We'll see.

For now, at least the families can be assured that the mine where their loved ones remain is sorrowfully sanctified. A testament to dignity as well as to disgrace.