Safety failures and lax regulation lead to Pike River Coal explosion, report finds

November 6, 2012

A Royal Commission report released by New Zealand’s government found that safety failures and lax government regulation caused the death of 29 workers at a Pike River Coal Ltd. mine on New Zealand’s South Island Nov. 19, 2010, The Wall Street Journal reported.

A series of explosions, the first on Nov. 19, 2010, killed 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two Britons and one South African who were trapped in the remote underground mine. Rescue efforts were hampered by fire and poisonous gases, and were called off five days later after a large explosion ended all hope of finding the men alive. The mine, on the island’s rugged west coast, remains sealed.

“In the drive towards coal production, the directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety and exposed the company’s workers to unacceptable risks,” the report said.

Difficulties arose because of a high number of inexperienced miners and overseas miners unaccustomed to New Zealand mining conditions, it said. This led to “reckless behavior,” with workers bypassing safety devices on mining machinery so that work could continue even in the presence of potentially explosive methane gases, it said.

The report also said the mine should have been better regulated by the country’s labor department, which had just two mine inspectors covering the whole country.

“The Department of Labor did not have the focus, capacity or strategies to ensure that Pike was meeting its legal responsibilities under health and safety,” it said.

Kate Wilkinson, New Zealand’s labor minister, resigned immediately after the release of the high-level inquiry, which was initiated after the country’s worst mine accident in almost 100 years.

The Pike River coal mine, located deep in the rugged Paparoa Ranges about 40 km (25 miles) northeast of the coastal town of Greymouth, was plagued by problems soon after tapping its first coal seam in 2008. Development costs spiraled, forcing it to return to the market and major shareholder New Zealand Oil & Gas Ltd. for further funding. The company was placed in receivership following the explosion.

Former Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall and the company were charged by the labor department over health and safety failures at the mine. VLI Drilling Pty Ltd., a subsidiary of Valley Longway International Pty. Ltd., also faced charges relating to maintenance and the operation of machinery. Whittall pleaded not guilty, VLI Drilling pleaded guilty, and Pike River’s receivers chose not to defend the charges.

Among the report's recommendations were that a new national regulator be created to focus on health and safety. Prime Minister John Key said the government would accept most of the advice, but had yet to make a decision on the new regulator.

“In relation to underground coal mining New Zealand has had a tragedy every generation or so, after the lessons of previous tragedies have been forgotten. This time the lessons must be remembered,” the report said.


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