By Byron Clark (Christchurch branch WP member)
‘‘I know a number of external parties who have expressed interest in the asset”
These were the words of Pike River Coal chairman John Dow, quoted in The Press on January 14th in an article where the main topic was the police decision to ‘pull the plug’ on attempts to recover the bodies of twenty nine miners from the Pike River mine. It’s a strange world we live in where “asset” and “mass grave” can be interchangeable. With the police ending their recovery attempt, responsibility for the mine lies with the receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Receiver John Fisk told Radio New Zealand that they have about $10 million in cash, plus a number of assets above the ground and in the mine. However, if there is not enough money to re-enter the mine, the land will be handed back to the government. If that happens, the Department of Conservation is most likely to assume control of the mine, and responsibility for the bodies of the workers still encased within it.
The families of the deceased miners have continued to speak of being “kept out of the loop” in regards to the body recovery programme. Bernie Monk who lost his son Michael in the disaster and is the spokesperson for miners’ families told NZPA that they believed Police Commissioner Howard Broad and Prime Minister John Key were given the wrong information when they said it was too dangerous to carry on with recovery attempts. Mr Monk said the families wanted Harry Bell, a gas and mine expert who had worked on West Coast mines for more than 40 years, to be running the recovery and giving police the advice they needed. He said the families wanted to know from the police who made the decision to abandon the body recovery programme, and where and how they got their information. The families have the backing of the EPMU, the union that represents miners.
The bulk of their compensation to families has came from public donations, and ACC is expected to be paying out between $10 and $20 million in total. Pike River Coal’s receivers paid $10,000 for each miner to their families plus $2500 for every child and/or parent just before Christmas. Other Pike River employees who were made redundant were paid up to $18,200 each. Pike River Coal’s secured creditors (NZ Oil and Gas and BNZ) however, will be paid $80 million by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The EPMU has found other jobs on the West Coast for a hand full of the 150 former Pike River employees, the rest have received offers from mining companies operating in Australia.
Over the next four months the Department of Labour (DoL) will be conducting an audit to determine if there were any breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act prior to the November 19th explosion. The audit will involve physical inspections of the mine, and a review of the health and safety systems and processes that were in place. As was noted in the December/January issue of The Spark, concerns about the safety of the mine have already been raised. Safety standards were condemned by experts such as Andrew Watson, the operations manager of United Kingdom Mines Rescue Operations, who noted that methane levels had to have reached 5 to 15 percent of the atmosphere for the explosion to occur. In British mines, work stops if methane levels reached just 1.25 percent, and mines are evacuated once they reach 2 percent. There was no backup generator for the mines ventilation system and geologist Murray Cave had warned back in 2007 that the geological risks at the mine site included a pit bottom with deep, highly gassy coals and the associated risk of “outburst”, or gas explosions. What may be neglected by the Department of Labour investigation is the failure of the government to implement what workers and unions asked for when the DoL held public consultations on ways to improve health and safety in mines following two underground deaths in 2006. They simply wanted check inspectors elected by workers.
Wider issues concerning cause and possible prevention are likely to be covered by the Royal Commission of Inquiry which began on January 27th, which was the same day that miners families were issued with death certificates. The DoL are conducting their audit independently but may share information. At the time of writing the latest from the DoL is that “It is too early to say what, if any, enforcement action, the Department may take as a result of this investigation.” This vagueness reflects the whole attitude that the state apparatus and government have been spinning since the incident occurred. We argue clearly for severe sentencing and punishment for the culprits at the conclusion of the investigation.