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‘Disaster Waiting to Happen,’ Pike River 3rd Inquiry Told

07.03.2012

The third phase of the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s investigation of the Pike River mine explosions of November 2010 that killed 29 concluded in mid-February in Greymouth, New Zealand, and several experts testified to the inherent weak safety mechanisms in place by Pike River Coal Ltd.

The latest set of hearings also reveal a company that was 18 months behind on orders to deliver  premium metallurgical coal, and in the words of a technical services manager who resigned just days before the first explosion, “There was no way the company would delay coal production” because of safety concerns.

The manager, Pieter Van Rooyen, testified that workers had given him notice of inadequate methane drainage pipes, requesting that drilling cease until rectified. Despite passing that on in writing to senior operational managers, nothing was done. Van Rooyen said the decision to begin hydro-mining deep within the shaft without constructing a second exit – and in areas of high methane gas build-up – was strictly for “cash-flow purposes.”

  

An electrical engineer who investigated New Zealand’s worst mining accident in 100 years said the faulty Pike River electrical systems multiplied chances for disaster since stray currents in many mechanical instruments produced sparks. Pike River’s main exhaust fan was located underground, an anomaly to modern mining.

In late October 2010, the company was warned by a regulatory agency that the stability of an expanded roof in an underground area was worrisome, and again nothing was done. A mine safety expert from Australia testified that the blast was caused by a roof collapse deep inside the mine, causing a massive release of gas. When the underground fan failed, the gas could have ignited from a small spark.

For 16 months now, the bodies of the 29 have remained entombed inside the South Island mine, despite efforts by families to recover their loved ones. In this inquiry round, photos of two miners who were sighted dead near self-rescue units were shown. The photos indicate that the miners might have survived the initial blast on 19 November 2010. In the following days, five more major explosions occurred.

Pike River Coal Ltd. killed 29 miners, including 26 New Zealanders, a miner from South Africa, one from the UK, and another miner who was an Australian national. The mother of this Australian miner named Josh Ufer is currently speaking out in Australia on the necessity to maintain full trade union involvement in all mine safety matters.

As the Single Bargaining Unit led by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) wages a battle against BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi to retain union-mandated safety deputies and open cut examiners inside Queensland collieries, Joanne Ufer is versing the dangers inherent in unilateral management control of safety matters in union advertisements.

The final phase of the Pike River Royal Commission of Inquiry will convene next month, with the commission’s report and findings to be issued in September.  See ICEM report following the commission’s second phase hearings.