Editorial: Money centre of tragedy

19:02, Nov 05 2012
PIKE RIVER MINE: Flames coming out of a ventilation shaft at the Pike River Mine after a fourth explosion on November 29, 2010.

Money: There's little doubt it was at the centre of the tragedy that unfolded at the Pike River coalmine on the West Coast, a tragedy that appears to have been simply a matter of time.

Yesterday's release of a damning report from the royal commission of inquiry into the explosions that killed 29 men in November 2010 makes it clear money was put ahead of the safety of miners and other related contractors in getting the mine working.

The report found the company's "drive for coal production before the mine was ready created the circumstances within which the tragedy occurred". That's as damning as it gets, and it's clear that, having begun operations too soon, the disregard for the safety of those working in the mine continued, with numerous warnings about dangerously high levels of methane ignored. Twenty-one reports of it reaching explosive levels in the two days before the first explosion tell their own sorry story.

Money was clearly also a strong driver in the lack of involvement of the Department of Labour in the mine's operations. While the report sheets home the blame to the company, Prime Minister John Key says the department relied "far too heavily" on the company to carry out its own safety work.

And money makes an appearance again in the actions of the workers in continuing to venture into the mine's dangerous interior. Plainly, those men saw a need to make a living to support their families, in a part of the country where jobs don't exactly grow on trees. Could they really have been unaware of the danger to their safety, especially those who were more senior? Were they held hostage by the lack of other jobs in the area?

There have been calls, not surprisingly, for charges against those deemed to be responsible. There's even been talk of bringing the concept of corporate manslaughter into New Zealand's legal framework, to bring us into line with countries like Britain and Australia. And it should happen, with an eye to the future. This isn't China, where reports of mining fatalities are a regular occurrence, or some tinpot Third World country with no safety standards. It's First World New Zealand.

Some charges have already been laid in relation to Pike River, and if there's scope within our current law, stronger ones should follow in the wake of this damning report.

Oh, and by the way, Kate Wilkinson's resignation as Minister of Labour really means nothing. No one raised any flags. Unless, of course, her example causes others in the department who were more in the know, and perhaps should have spoken up, to fall on their swords as well.


The Timaru Herald