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There should be no more lives put at risk in the Pike River Mine

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This determination to re-enter the Pike River Mine flies in the face of the only positive development to have come out of the disaster – a new zeal for health and safety.

It goes without saying that New Zealanders have enormous sympathy for the families of the 29 men who died in the Pike River Mine disaster. However, it does not automatically follow that all New Zealanders think there should be an attempt to enter what is sadly now more tomb than mine.

That such an attempt seems set to be made is the latest turn in a chain of events whose origins lie in actions and inactions long before the mine exploded eight years ago. It is unarguable that the mine operator, Pike River Coal, bears primary culpability because no agency had more knowledge, more ability to affect the workplace culture and more responsibility for the safety of the men underground than the company. It abjectly failed its workers, contractors and their families.

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Statutory health and safety provisions that should have been a back-up had been eroding under the previous Labour Government and continued to do so under National. One of the findings of the royal commission into the tragedy was that mining inspectorate services had been so run down that by the time of the disaster, New Zealand had just two mines inspectors, and their travel budget was so constrained that their invigilation was patchy.

The union that represented miners, and which at the time was headed by Andrew Little, who is now Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-Entry, also failed the Pike workers. Just days after the explosion, Little said the mine had a good health and safety committee and nothing had alerted the union to any risk at that time. In fact, the gassy mine had a sufficiently poor reputation on the West Coast that some contractors chose never to enter it.

There were so many failings that “accident” is hardly the right word to describe the disaster that occurred on November 19, 2010. This tragedy could have happened at any time to any shift of miners.

It was a disgrace that when Pike River Coal, then in receivership, was convicted of charges relating to the explosion, the company went under leaving more than $3 million in reparations unpaid. WorkSafe New Zealand then laid 12 health and safety charges against mine boss Peter Whittall. Yet they were dropped in return for his insurance company providing the reparations the mine company failed to make. The Supreme Court last year ruled that the deal was “an unlawful agreement to stifle prosecution”. However, it may still never be possible to hold any person or entity to account. As with the collapse of the Canterbury Television building, the denial of even an attempt at justice rankles with New Zealanders.

It was a further disgrace that New Zealand First and Labour chose to politicise the tragedy at the last election, with Winston Peters promising to be one of the first to re-enter the mine. His swagger implied that cowardice, not caution, was the problem. Never fear, Peters would go where Mines Rescue had not been allowed to tread. This determination to re-enter the mine flies in the face of the only positive development to have come out of the disaster – a new zeal for health and safety. To unnecessarily risk more lives in the same mine, however much some of the families want it to happen, undermines the very principle this tragedy so firmly established: that safety is paramount.

Through all this, some of the victims’ families have heroically battled on, determined to see responsibility sheeted home somewhere, somehow. Their efforts have been laudable. The idea, however, that a team will be able to find in the devastated, burnt mine evidence that will lead to a prosecution seems illusory and the recovery of human remains sadly unlikely. Regardless, politicians have for years kept the families’ hopes dangling. This seems more cruelty than kindness. The closure the families seek might be further advanced had it been given more of a chance.

The $36 million cost of re-entry would not be worth mentioning, even to those who think the money could be better spent on reducing the rising road toll or child poverty, if the chances were higher that it will serve any purpose except political triumphalism.

Little has spoken of “knowing when to call it quits”. Arguably, and regrettably, that point has probably passed. There must be no more lives put at risk.

This editorial was first published in the December 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.