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Safety helmets and crosses line the access road to the mine at a commemoration last year. Photo/Getty Images

Should the Pike River Mine re-entry be put to rest?

As the re-entry programme falls behind schedule, some families are saying "enough is enough". Meanwhile New Zealand has seen a big rise in workplace fatalities.

Under a section entitled, “Health, safety and well-being”, the Pike River Recovery Agency’s latest annual report says, “As an Agency we need to know when to call it ‘quits’ if that is what needs to be done.” From the context, the agency is referring to the need to know when to give up on particular tasks it is undertaking, rather than whether to give up entirely on trying to re-enter the Pike River coal mine. The latter is a decision for the Government, which gives no sign of recognising that the time to quit has already passed.

This year will see the 10th anniversary of the tragedy that occurred on November 19, 2010, when the West Coast mine exploded while 31 men were working inside it. The only survivors were the two employees who were furthest away from the explosion and close enough to the mine entrance to escape. The other 29 perished in a day that will be long remembered by their families, friends and communities, and by a country that vowed after the event to improve its health-and-safety practices. In the first 11 months of last year, 79 people died in workplace fatalities, compared with 56 for the equivalent period the previous year. Vehicle accidents dominate workplace death statistics.

That the remains of the 29 men who died were unable to be recovered will always be part of the tragedy, and one that is particularly difficult for their families. That the company that employed the men was afterwards never put on trial, despite it being known there were safety deficiencies, remains another significant regret. It is also hard on the families that politicians, in particular Pike River Re-entry Minister Andrew Little, and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who offered to be among the first group back into the mine, choose to prolong the aftermath. They have dangled the prospect of finding evidence that may yet lead to court action, or even finding human remains. Nine years has been long enough to allow these families to hold on to hopes that, sadly, are most likely illusory.

Recently, Marion Curtin, the mother of Richard Holling, who is one of the 29 men who died, was reported to have asked when someone would say “enough is enough”. The men were not lost, she said, because their families knew where they were. Further, the coroner had explained that the bodies would be ash. She questioned how many millions of taxpayer dollars had already been spent, and how much more would be committed for no obvious outcome, given that reaching the far part of the mine where the men were most likely to have been, was not one of the objectives.

In response, Little was quoted as saying that “the vast majority” of the families supported re-entry. One of the concerns had been a failure of oversight at the time, he said, and re-entry was part of putting that right.

Little was head of the union representing miners at the time of the explosion. Just days afterwards, he said that nothing had alerted the union to any risk beforehand. In adopting the portfolio of Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry, he may feel he has something to lose by the recovery agency failing to achieve its three objectives of retrieving evidence, giving families closure and recovering remains where possible. Some kind of political point-scoring may always have been a fourth objective.

Few people, if any, think it acceptable that 29 people should go to work one day and never come home, with no one being held accountable. Yet, tragically, that is what happened. Their families’ enduring commitment to justice has never been in doubt, but the public’s willingness to continue to pay so much to achieve it might be. The Government is doubling the underground shifts, to two, but it needs to broker a resolution.

As workplace fatalities are on the rise again, there is a strong case for the money being spent at Pike River to instead be used elsewhere to save lives. The men of Pike River are in their final resting place. If asked, the public may say that the campaign to re-enter the mine should now also be put to rest.

This editorial was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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