Morris on Pike River

, a former coal-mining journalist and author, writes:

The dramatic release of 13 hours of underground footage by the police relating to the tragedy is more sad raking of the tragedy’s embers, instigated by a small minority of the 29 families.

The video being the same one shown to them six years ago.

It remains a sad fact that mining all over the world, in Australia, Europe, South Africa, the USA and China have underground mines as eternal tombs for victims of mine disasters. Strongman Number One mine near Greymouth is a tomb for two victims of the 1967 disaster that killed 19.

No-one wants to leave the dead down a mine, but even more no-one wants to increase the number of people dead.

Some of the Pike victims’ families commissioned an experts’ report to support their case for re-entry and have lobbied hard to get this report accepted.

Prepared by United Kingdom coalmining experts, Dr David Creedy and Robert Stevenson, the report A method for safe reentry of Pike River Mine Drift, has been used to make the case for re-entry into the 2.3km stone access tunnel to the mine, known as the Drift.

The five-page UK report contrasts with the extensive bevy of reports commissioned by Pike’s owner Solid Energy, using New Zealand underground mining experts, and published in their hundreds of pages on their website.

The UK report is not a detailed plan for safe entry. It is a high level proposal for what might be possible. It sits in contrast to the hundreds of pages of reports by mining experts on the dangers.

Solid Energy’s work using extensive local knowledge, is perceived to be too conservative compared with the UK opinion. History repeats in a sense as on the day after the first explosion at Pike, on November 20, 2010, seven of the 13 New Zealand certificated underground mine managers were there ready to assist only to be sidelined by the government agencies.

And that probably saved their lives as the mine exploded again.

Both sides partially agree, based on footage obtained by robots and borehole cameras, that structurally, the drift could be entered as it is likely to be in good condition for the first 2km, given the installed level of structural supports and roof bolts. Even after four explosions, it is likely to be intact.

Four explosions!

The mine has been on fire at various stages and any form of re-ignition arising from re-entry activity into the drift, can not be dismissed. The UK experts say the workings have been gas-filled, therefore oxygen free for four years, which removes spontaneous combustion concerns, a view not shared by New Zealand experts.

In any analysis of the risk of re-entry at Pike, history reminds us of the many rescue workers killed attempting recovery of coalmine disaster victims. In a Pike-sized mine at Crandall Canyon in Utah in 2007, six miners were killed in the mine and 10 days later, three rescue workers were killed attempting recovery. The six miners remain entombed.

Yet Little and Peters want to pass a law forcing Solid Energy to send people down the mine, no matter how dangerous.

The re-entry of the drift at Pike is recognised in mining circles globally, as not straightforward. The UK experts’ report commissioned by some of the Pike families, is full of unproven, hopeful assumptions.

It’s barely a report at five pages.

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