A vindication bringing no joy

ON THE STAND: Former Pike River coal mine safety and training manager Neville Rockhouse giving evidence.
ON THE STAND: Former Pike River coal mine safety and training manager Neville Rockhouse giving evidence.

Neville Rockhouse lost nearly everything in the Pike River explosion: his much-loved son, Ben, and, in some people's eyes, his reputation.

Rockhouse was the mine's safety and training manager at the time of the November 19, 2010, explosion. Ben, 21, was among the 29 men who died in the tragedy. His older brother, Daniel, then 24, was one of just two to make it out of the mine alive.

As a nation's grief turned to anger and dismay following the tragedy, some started questioning whether Neville Rockhouse had done everything in his power to keep the mine's work force safe.

But the royal commission of inquiry into the mining disaster says Rockhouse did all he could, with its report on Monday taking aim at Pike River's management - who repeatedly put profit over safety - and the mine's design.

"I would not put anyone at risk, not the least my sons . . . and I have now lost one of them," Rockhouse told the Sunday Star-Times.

"I have been vindicated but it doesn't really feel any different, it doesn't bring Ben and the other guys back. The root cause of the Pike River mine disaster was sheer arrogance with a good dose of greed thrown in for good measure."

Rockhouse twice gave evidence to the commission.

Its report stated that "this posed special difficulties for him; he lost one son in the tragedy and another was one of the two survivors who escaped from the mine". He had a "heavy workload" at the mine, sometimes working up to 80 hours a week.

Attempts to gain more staff to improve safety initiatives were "largely unsuccessful", the commission said. The support he required for managing health and safety systems was "lacking".

Management also failed to address Rockhouse's repeated concerns about the need for an underground refuge chamber and a second means of egress.

"He had no authority over the managers and staff and there was no central oversight of the way departments managed health and safety other than Mr Rockhouse who was 'chasing them constantly to get stuff done'," the commission ruled. His safety department had been "marginalised" by management, it added.

Talking to the Star-Times on Wednesday, Rockhouse said: "Others [at the mine] had gone around me and kept stuff from me. I used to get thwarted and stopped. I never got the support.

"And as soon as the tragedy happened, I was put in the gun. [People thought] I was obviously the one responsible for it. But that has now been disproven.

"People think, 'safety misgivings, safety breaches . . . it must be the safety manager'. I have copped a lot of crap over this last two years. It is good to see that the royal commission have believed me and put it into writing so people can see it."

Despite the commission ruling Rockhouse was committed to worker safety, and that many of his best efforts were stymied by management, the legacy of Pike River had taken its toll on his reputation in the mining industry.

"I have two post-graduate degrees, including a masters degree in health and safety, and I have not been able to get a single interview in the mining industry. [But] all these [management members] have landed on their feet and got these huge-paying jobs."

The Star-Times revealed last month that Stephen Ellis, the manager of the ill-fated mine, had landed a top job at a Canadian underground coal mine.

Rockhouse is now a health, safety and quality officer for Smith Cranes, a company heavily involved in the Christchurch earthquake rebuild.

He said a return to the mining industry was unlikely.

"Yes, the commission seems to have vindicated me at a professional level because there was stuff happening that I was never told about or involved in," he said.

"Even with the commission accepting my evidence, really [it] does not make me feel any better. Ben is still dead with his 28 mates . . . no winners in this entire mess."

The commission's 404-page report revealed what most had said for the past two years - the mine was a disaster waiting to happen.

Two independent mine reviews - including one by a specialist risk assessor for the insurance industry - were damning of standards, with one stating a methane gas explosion was "possible".

Pike River workers - including those on the coal face - also warned of possible disaster, including raising numerous concerns with management over the mine's woeful ventilation system.

The commission's report included copies of reports written by workers, including one which stated: "Get the damn ventilation shaft sorted out so we can cut coal, this ventilation issue has dragged on for 2-1/2 years!!!"

Another wrote: "When are you going to get this shit sorted . . . if you run a private mine like this you would be shut in a week."

The repeated warnings over potential disaster added to a lengthy list of problems facing Pike River's board and executive management. Staff morale was low and turnover among mine managers and middle management was high. Expensive equipment was also unsuitable for use in the challenging mine.

The actions of some workers also jeopardised colleagues, with cigarette butts found inside the mine and in mine vehicle cabins. Some staff had also bypassed what safety steps management had introduced - such as machine-mounted gas sensors - tampering with them to make them inoperable.

Sunday Star Times