Pike families threaten mine block
Pike River Disaster
Families plan to blockade Solid Energy from taking coal from the Pike River mine if the state-owned enterprise fails to recover the bodies of 29 men killed in a blast 18 months ago.
Solid Energy said last night it had signed a conditional agreement to buy the underground West Coast mine for $7.5 million, but body recovery would proceed only as part of developing a commercially viable coalmine there.
Chief executive Don Elder told the victims' families at a meeting in Greymouth last night that the chance of a new underground mine being established at Pike River was 5 to 10 per cent, and body recovery could be even less likely.
He predicted it could take as long as eight years or more before enough work had been done for a new mine to open.
Many families of the dead men were reeling today as they absorbed the news of such a remote chance of having the bodies returned home, and vowed to fight.
''The families are hostile and they're not putting up with it,'' the spokesman for most of the Pike families, Bernie Monk, said today.
He said they would block Solid Energy's efforts to mine at the site unless it had tried to retrieve the men's bodies.
''If it means going up to the mine to stop them taking coal out, we will.''
Mining unions were being asked for support to blacklist Solid Energy if it started mining the Pike River coalfield before the body recovery, he said.
Monk said the families' legal team and some family members were working today to review past comments by various people, including Prime Minister John Key.
''We want to make them accountable for all they've said.''
Key had told families money would be ''no object'' in recovering the men's bodies and the mine's sale would be blocked unless the new owner had a credible body-recovery plan, he said.
''John Key told the families the only reason they would sell the mine was to get the guys out,'' said Monk, whose son, Michael, 23, died in the mine.
''He wasn't going to let any overseas mine buy it and bank it. (Solid Energy) are banking that mine.''
Monk said the families would have considered buying the mine had they realised it would be sold for only $7.5m.
He believed the deal was to smooth over the Pike River problem for the Government.
Carol Rose, whose son, Stuart Mudge, 31, was killed in the blast, said the news had been gut-wrenching and had angered many families.
''There's been quite a lot of tears shed and we're absolutely determined that we are going to turn this around,'' she said.
''As far as I'm concerned, the gloves are off. The families have shown dignity over the past 18 months, but all deals are off now. Watch this space.''
It appeared the Government had dropped a clause to require the mine's new owner to undertake ''best endeavours'' to retrieve the entombed men's bodies, she said.
''The mine is going to be worth so much more because of that. It's very crafty.''
Despite Key's claims that money was not the focus of a sale, 10 of the 15 clauses of the deal between Solid Energy and the Government involved money.
''It is about money. They can say what they like,'' she said.
''These 29 men have been completely shafted by their own people.''
Her husband, Steve Rose, said body recovery was technically feasible.
''Our worst fears have been confirmed. It's about business and it's all about money. There's no humanity involved here,'' he said.
FRONTING UP ONE OF 'HARDEST THINGS'
Solid Energy head Don Elder says fronting up to the families of the Pike River victims was one of the hardest things he has ever done.
He said there was a 5 to 10 per cent chance of Solid Energy deciding it could create a new underground coalmine at Pike River, but it was even less likely that they could safely re-enter the old mine for body recovery.
''As we said to the families, we're sorry, but there are no easy answers,'' he said.
''It wasn't all bad news. The fact that Solid Energy is stepping forward now, having originally walked away and saying we will now take responsibility and control here, I think is good news and hopeful.''
He said Solid Energy walked away from considering buying the mine last November and told receivers PricewaterhouseCoopers that Pike River was worthless.
However, the receivers approached the state-owned enterprise again to reconsider after it revealed all other interested parties had pulled out.
They signed the conditional purchase and sale agreement last night.
''This was a mine that had woefully inadequate knowledge right from the beginning, on the geology, on the mining conditions, on the requirements to mine well, safely and productively, and that's been borne out.''
Solid Energy had decided to step up to the ''remote possibility that there's a mine there'', but there was a huge amount of work to be done, Elder said.
As part of that, it committed to look at the possibility of body recovery.
''The reality is that you need effectively a new mine to get in to do any body recovery.''
That included such things as appropriate access, he said.
One of Pike River's key flaws highlighted during the royal commission of inquiry into the tragedy was its lack of an appropriate second emergency exit.
He said if a new underground mine was viable, it would ''almost certainly'' be close to the old mine.
''That is positive news because that means access into the old mine from a proper new mine with all the right infrastructure and everything done right will be easier.''
Elder said a new mine could take as long as eight years or more to develop before body recovery could be undertaken.
''We're not going to put it at the back of the pile and do nothing, but we don't want to give anybody any illusions that just wait a year or two and we'll be back in there. That's not going to happen.''
He said the mine's $7.5 million sale price would cover buying the mine permit and access agreement to the Pike River coalfield, plus the old mine's 2.4-kilometre tunnel and buildings, which might be used for a new mine.
''We haven't purchased a mine. This is not a working mine. This is not a mine that can be reoperated.''
Solid Energy would start looking into plans to reclaim the mine's tunnel immediately, he said.
The sale deal was expected to go unconditional in a few weeks once the mining permit and access agreement was transferred to Solid Energy, when it expected to take over the mine.
Elder said no pressure had come from the Government for Solid Energy to buy the Pike River mine.
''This is our core business. This is what we do. We identify, we find resources and we see if they can possibly be mined,'' he said.
The families were devastated no stand-alone body recovery would proceed and the dead men might be retrieved only if a commercially viable mine could be developed at Pike River.
''It was a very tearful time for a lot of the families and they are very emotional,'' the spokesman for most Pike families, Bernie Monk, said last night.
''We should never go into a meeting like this with high expectations.''
Many families had high hopes, which were dashed last night, he said.
''It hasn't been ruled out, but I think we were given the worst scenario that maybe we'll never get them out,'' he said.
''A lot of [families] are angry; angry that Pike River left us a long time ago. We've been through 18 months of hell and then to be told this tonight has just brought it home that we've wasted 18 months of hoping like hell once that mine gets sold, that we were going to get recovery.''
He said the families would re-evaluate Elder's comments and would ask him to meet their experts before planning to meet again.
''For me, there's been that many experts making opinions on Pike River, I don't know who to believe any more.''
Monk praised Elder for being ''straight and honest''.
''That's all we've asked for and he's been honest with us right from the word go. That's more than I can say we've had up till now. We're going to work very hard with Dr Elder.''
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