Solid Energy's decision not to re-enter Pike River mine to try to recover the bodies of those who died there will be heartbreaking for those families who wanted to recover their loved ones. It is hard, however, to quarrel with the decision.
OPINION: The possibility that the mine could be re-entered safely was always a very long shot. The possibility, after repeated explosions, flooding and prolonged burning in the mine, that anything recoverable would be found was even more remote. A year ago, the Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn warned that the chance of bodies being brought back were slim.
Despite that, there is no doubt that an honest investigation has been made. The families seeking re-entry had said they were seeking one chance to have the mine re-entered. The Government facilitated that by providing $7.2 million to Solid Energy for the purpose. The fact that, after exhaustive examination, re-entry has been ruled out must now be accepted.
Critics have complained about the time it has taken to get to this point. That is unfair. The assessment of the job could not be done hastily. At a late stage, the relatives of victims also put to Solid Energy opinions of experts they had hired, which also had to be properly considered.
Solid Energy chair Pip Dunphy made it clear yesterday that safety was the crucial factor in the decision. She itemised multiple risks - several hundred in all - that would have had to be managed for any re-entry to be undertaken safely. They were unignorable.
The Government has been criticised for leaving the decision to Solid Energy's directors, suggesting it would have been different if the Government had made it. That amounts to suggesting the Government would have been willing to take greater risks with people's lives than a private entity would. That is most unlikely and if it were true would be highly undesirable.
In the forefront of the directors' minds must have been awareness not just that the Pike River disaster was caused by flaws and shortcuts in the building and the operation of the mine but also that after the disaster there was fierce criticism of the fact that no-one in the higher reaches of the Pike River company was held to account.
The Government responded with a bill that will introduce greatly increased duties on directors and high officials within companies to oversee and manage health and safety risks. Failure to carry out any duty that results in death or injury could result in fines of up to $3 million for companies and fines up to $600,000 and imprisonment up to five years for individuals. Although the legislation has not yet passed (submissions are due in March and it will no doubt progress next year) responsible company officers should be turning their minds to its provisions now, as Solid Energy's directors almost certainly did in arriving at their decision.
Not all the families of Pike River victims wanted the bodies to be retrieved. Some thought the mine should be sealed and left as a memorial to their loved ones. Now that re-entry has been ruled out, everyone involved should turn to thinking of how that can be done in a dignified and appropriate way.
- The Press