Podcast: The Detail

Pike River - another blow to families

Pike River families had today’s date ringed in their calendars.

It was to be the reopening of the mine, which remains the tomb of 29 men. The reopening is something the families have fought for, for more than eight years. 

But there’s been a glitch - yesterday minister Andrew Little announced that unexpected and unexplained readings have been reported by the mine’s atmospheric monitoring systems, and the operation was suspended. It’s a temporary measure.

He has always said safety would be the first consideration in the operation – and on announcing the re-entry last year, expressed the hope that the experts, if necessary, would have the courage to say ‘no’. Now, they have.

“I back the Pike River Recovery Agency to take the time needed to fully understand the cause and significance of these new readings,” he said yesterday.

Little and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern were still on the West Coast overnight with the families, which have been promised a comprehensive briefing from the recovery agency today.

Investigation work on the new readings will continue over the next week and a meeting of experts will convene later in the month.

Fire breaks out at the mine as recovery experts try to enter it, 11 days after the explosion in 2010. Photo: Getty Images

It’s a $36 million project that has had years of planning put into it. Little approved a single entry plan which has involved the design and manufacture of new emergency portal doors, the restoration of a high voltage power supply, and the acquisition of a nitrogen plant. Small bore holes for pumping in ventilation have been drilled and other preparatory work completed.

Journalist Rebecca Macfie wrote the book on the subject – ‘Tragedy at Pike River Mine’. When the slab of concrete guarding the mine entrance is pulled away, she will be there.

She remembers hearing the breaking news on November 19, 2010, about the Greymouth explosion.

“I guess very early on I came to the view – which was somewhat instinctive for me really – that this was not an accident,” she says.

“Early on I started seeing little hints in the company documents that this was a really high risk operation that had gone badly, it had suffered endless delays, it seemed to be constantly under-capitalised. It had a series of things in the design and development that had gone wrong, constantly under-delivering and over-promising. And I basically followed my nose with that.”

Macfie spent hours sitting in on the Royal Commission in 2011 which followed those same sorts of lines of inquiry into the root causes of that calamity.

She says even for “an old journo like me”, the re-opening day will be an emotional one. “It’s just been such an extraordinary story, right from the beginning,” she says.

And since the explosion there’s been another series of extraordinary events. Pike River Coal went broke three weeks later so it couldn’t pay its substantial debts; or its fines when it was prosecuted. There was an attempt to prosecute mine manager Peter Whittall, but all charges were dropped in a deal that was later found to be unlawful. Then Solid Energy, which had purchased the mine, tried to permanently seal the entrance after it said the task couldn’t be done safely. A picket by families was successful is stopping the work. Then Solid Energy itself went broke.

Macfie says this has been the worst industrial disaster in New Zealand for almost a century – and a totally avoidable catastrophe. “But there has been no accountability. And that’s why it’s continued to be a weeping sore.”

She says this re-entry is not solely about recovering human remains, but about recovering forensic evidence as to the cause of the explosion. "We know it was a methane blast, but where did the spark come from – the fuse that blew it?"

The mine drift is 2.3 kilometres long, and at about 1.9 km up there is a labyrinth of tunnels built in rock, that contains equipment of huge interest to the police and off-shore forensic experts. When it’s been made safe, they will go in to examine that equipment for clues. But for now, the key is – when it’s been made safe. Today, experts have taken heed of Andrew Little’s words when he announced re-entry, and have had the courage to say ‘no’.

The Detail was made possible by the RNZ/NZ On Air Innovation Fund.

The long drift runs from the right hand side of the page, towards the left, where you see the labyrinth of mine roadways. Almost at the end of the drift is the smaller labyrinth of roadways on either side - that’s the area that houses a great deal of the electrical and other equipment of huge forensic interest. Photo: Pike River Recovery Agency

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