Lament for Pike River revisited

Editorial

Last updated 08:15 09/11/2012

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OPINION: A little more than a year ago, as the Royal Commission into the Pike River mine disaster began to reveal extraordinary tales of incompetence and lax safety standards, we published an editorial lamenting the lack of oversight and corporate care.

In the wake of the commission's findings, released this week, it's worth revisiting that opinion.

The bosses of the Pike River mine are very lucky. That will seem a callous statement given that their company has been involved in one of our worst disasters.

But no doubt the men and women are breathing a sigh of relief that they operated a coalmine in New Zealand and not the United States.

Had their coalmining company been based in the US, which relies on the legal system to fund compensation rather than the Government, then the negligence being revealed by the Pike River mine inquiry would have received a punishment more appropriate for a largely man-made disaster that claimed 29 lives.

During the harrowing days while we waited on news of a possible rescue, Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall seemed like a tower of strength: He soothed the frayed nerves of anxious families, patiently dealt with frequent media requests, and worked with the police until it was obvious there was to be no rescue, no hope.

The pain and frustration of the entire country was reflected in his tired face. Surely, even though this was his mine, he was just another victim of a terrible disaster. But that facade of brave but stoic victimhood fades with every new revelation of inadequate and lax attention to health and safety brought to the surface by the inquiry's scrutiny. What was at first perceived as a tragic natural disaster is fast becoming a whodunit of man's folly in the pursuit of profit; a woeful situation supported and probably encouraged by the largesse of successive governments kneeling at the shrine of the mighty dollar.

Self-rescue suits that did not work, the absence of any evacuation training, emergency phones that clicked over to answer machines and "fresh air" bases that did not work because they had been decommissioned. And no first-aid kits.

Such a litany would normally be associated with mining in places such as China, where it appears life is valued as less worthy than the pursuit of wealth. Unfortunately, and maybe criminally, that is what goes on in our country.

Had such a catastrophe happened elsewhere then the industry might have been dragged through the courts and been forced through threat of crippling legal action to make its workplaces safer. In our country, we have had to rely on governments who have clearly looked the other way and allowed the downgrading of mine safety systems.

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That's not good enough, and the inquiry's revelations make one ponder whether the explosion itself could have been caused or exacerbated by the perfect storm of business greed and bureaucratic indifference. This inquiry will have served a purpose if it can limit the former and eliminate the latter.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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