Pike River 29 – leave them in peace

The revelation the Pike River mine has been safe to enter for some time isn’t the same as the mine being able to be entered easily to remove the remains of the 29 miners that perished.   If the mine is ever opened commercially, I believe the removal should be mandatory.  Until then, this NZ Herald editorial explains a reasonable alternative.

All things considered, it would have been kinder to their families to have sealed the mine soon after the second explosion and declared it to be a grave. There was never much prospect of the mine reopening even when state-owned Solid Energy took it over. The nearby Strongman mine has never allowed re-entry to shafts where an explosion killed 19 miners in 1967. But nobody has wanted to dispel the hopes constantly expressed by Bernie Monk, spokesman for the Pike River victims’ families, and Greymouth Mayor Tony Kokshoorn.

The Government has come as close as it dares to dashing the hope. The day the Prime Minister conditionally committed $10 million to the re-entry plan he said the chances of reaching the main working were remote. “The advice I have received is that it is very unlikely that the High Hazards Unit would deem it to be safe,” he said. Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges doubted anything would be found beyond the rockfall. “There’s been fires, there’s been floods, there’s been explosions, so it has been and probably still is a very unstable environment.”

A month later, officials did deem the plan safe but clearly Solid Energy, and possibly the Government, did not deem it necessary to let the families and the public know. It has taken an application under the Official Information Act to discover the truth a year on. It means the company and ministers can no longer invoke safety as an excuse for no action on the re-entry plan, apart from clearing debris from the top of the ventilation shaft. That alone cost $4 million even though the RNZAF did most of the work.

As recently as August, Solid Energy said “potentially fatal risks” were holding up an attempt to re-enter the mine. More recently, the company has blamed new legislation that requires mines to have at least two exits. But that would not stop an effort to recover bodies if it was deemed worth the cost. When the cost is weighed against the remote chance of finding any remains, and the fact that any recovery teams could go only part-way into the mine, it is simply not worth it.

In their hearts the families probably know it. After four years, it would be kinder to let the families accept that the mine is the tomb and ensure the men will be memorialised there.

There is no doubt in my mind that some of the activists are using the situation for political ends.  That much was clear when Key was in Greymouth and the usual rent a crows turned up to pitch impossible questions like “when are you going to bring him home?”.

In a practical sense, they are already buried.  Family know where they are entombed.  They can say goodbye.  Perhaps a suitable memorial area can be created for family, friends and supporters to reflect.

But to dig them out of a mountain to then stick them in the ground in the middle of Greymouth seems an excessive risk to take when you ask other people to put their lives on the line to achieve it.

Pike River is a beautiful area.  If the mine remains closed, it will be peaceful and respectful to have these  sons remain.

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