Guest Post: Pike Re-entry on Shaky Ground

This article appeared in the local West Coast newspaper and seems to have got Andrew Little very upset so I thought it was worth republishing here:

The Recovery Agency (PRRA) is planning to bypass the strengthened mine safety regulations passed into law in 2016, as recommended by the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy, in response to the explosions that killed 29 men on Friday, November 19, 2010.
 
The Agency is preparing a case to Government’s controlling agency, Worksafe New Zealand, to seek an exemption from Regulation 170, and is planning to submit its rationale by August 31 to seek approval to enter the mine’s 2.3km access drive.
 
Regulation 170 of the Health and Safety at Work (Mining Operations) Regulation 2016, states that “the mine operator of an underground coal mining operation must ensure that the mining operation has at least two exits trafficable on foot to the surface.”
 
One of the hottest topics to emerge at the Royal Commission was the lack of a second access at Pike.  The decision on the PRRA case will be made by Worksafe CEO, Nicole Rosie.
 
Since Worksafe has emerged as Government’s safety at work governing body as a direct result of the Pike tragedy in 2010, it has strengthened its prosecution programme under the Health and Safety at Work Act and gone hard after miscreants.  It seems highly unlikely based on its track record that it would now grant exemptions to allow its laws to be bypassed.
 
Only last week it prosecuted and fined $370,000 a horse trainer whose young rider fell off a horse in training and became a tetraplegic.  Unlike Pike, the trainer, Stephen McKee took responsibility for the sad accident and immediately paid the fine out of his own pocket.
 
Other companies have been similarly dealt to by Worksafe. In November last year, Waikato’s Electrix Ltd was fined $332,060 when one of its workers fell from a transmission tower. In April, Southland’s Agricentre South Ltd failed to fix a tractor’s brakes properly and the tractor ran over a local farmer.  They were fined $239,062.50.
 
The cost of the exemption evaluation process will likely add significantly to Government’s allocated budget to PRRA of $36 million.  Government Ministers, who have made a political football out of Pike over the last three years, will likely struggle accepting a decline by Ms Rosie of the PRRA case.
 
Government is also spending $77.8 million on a new hospital at Greymouth and $10 million on the Pike Memorial Track in the Paparoa Range.  The future value of the hospital investment by Government is likely to be the most productive of the three for West Coasters.
 
The PRRA has successfully dealt with the ventilation issues at Pike using nitrogen under pressure to expel explosive gases like methane from the stone drive and adjoining mine workings. 
 
With no cutting of coal planned in the re-entry process, the risk of methane exploding is minimized but there remains the risk of sparks from machinery igniting rogue pockets of methane in the stone drive which will effectively be a fresh air environment, thanks to the successful nitrogen injection.
 
The recovery team has progressed down the stone drive as far as the stopping at the 170 metre mark, but to go the additional 2.1 kms to the mine workings requires the Reg 170 exemption to be approved by Worksafe.
 
The Royal Commission identified 11 likely last working places of the Pike 29, all are in the mine workings past the immovable rockfall at the end of the Drift. The establishment of the PRRA was greeted with messages like ‘we can now get our men out’.  This has been ruled out by the PRRA.
 
The proposed inspection of the Drift is focusing on gathering forensic evidence as to the cause of the initial explosion.  Again, the Royal Commission speculated strongly that it was sparking from the underground fan’s drive shaft well past the end of the Drift that was a likely factor. Their modeling showed the first blast originating near the fan, travelling west to the far reaches of the mine and then bouncing back almost 5kms east to the portal.
 
The Pike saga has been underpinned by about-facedness since two days after the first explosion in 2010. At the Sunday afternoon press conference at the Greymouth Police Station, Pike CEO, Peter Whittall told the packed media that fresh air was being pumped into the mine and the men have access to fractured compressed air lines.
 
At the end of the formal questions, Greymouth Mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, chased after Whittall down an adjoining corridor to get confirmation that the mine was on fire. Tony had been told this was the case from Mines Rescue sources. 
 
They had tested the smoke emerging from the Pike ventilation shaft on the Saturday afternoon which showed spontaneous combustion readings of 34.0 when fire combustion readings in coal are positive at 0.4.  The Pike company denied the mine was on fire, the beginnings of an almost ten-year saga of deceit.
 
Kokshoorn was manhandled aside by Whittall’s minders and told he was unavailable.
 
The PRRA faces its biggest hurdle and a credibility crisis with its Reg 170 exemption application. The revised regulations have been in place since 2016 and the PRRA knew of this situation when it took on the re-entry challenge two years later. 
 
Worksafe will no doubt get ‘guidance’ from Cabinet on its decision, but if you were to apply a betting analogy to the process, either PRRA or Worksafe will surely emerge with the face of a beaten favourite.

The author, , is a former coal-mining journalist who has co-authored two books on West Coast mining history. Three members of his family worked at Pike and he was the lead researcher on Rebecca Macfie’s multi award winning book on Pike.

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