Don’t let greenies and boffins kill any more people!

A blatant attempt by conservation lobbyists to stop the Pike River Coal Company Ltd (Pike) from establishing a working mine resulted in the creation of the Paparoa National Park smack on top of Pike’s estimated then at 19 million tonnes of high quality bituminous coal.  Golder Associates in 2006 raised this estimate to 58.5 million tonnes.  A significant resource.

Paparoa National Park

Eight years work had already gone into exploring Pike River when the Paparoa National Park was established in 1987.

In 1979, geologist Terry Bates and assistants explored the [Pike River] area.  Six drill holes confirmed the presence of a large area of coal. 

Eight years was plenty of time for conservation groups such as Forest and Bird to prevent an open-cast coal mine in the Paparoa Ranges (open-cast being the safest method of extracting valuable but very volatile coking coal).   

Even five years was long enough.  Groups opposed to mining really paid attention when the Pike River Coal Company was formed in 1982 to hold exploration rights over the area.  Conservation group minutes over this period would make for very interesting reading.

Anti-mining groups didn’t have to work very hard to convince the Government to approve the establishment of the Paparoa National Park because they were already anti-mining.  An extract from the 2012 DoC Management Plan outlining DoC’s responsibilities for the Paparoa National Park states:


In its review of the tragedy, the Royal Commission neglected to consider the effects of a coal mine being developed under conservation land.  Instead, it said  When Paparoa National Park was created in 1987, the area of the Pike River coalfield was excluded from it. The permission of [the Department of Conservation] DoC was, however, required for access and other activities outside the boundaries of the coalfield.” 

Is this porkie supposed to make us believe DoC had no hand in the Pike mine disaster?  Not true!  The whole mine was under conservation land and even the access road went through it.

In 2004 Chris Carter, Minister of Conservation, said just prior to approving the Pike underground mine: “The mine will require an access road over 3.6 km of public conservation land and the mine itself is located under conservation land on the eastern slopes of the Paparoa range in the Grey Valley north east of Greymouth.”

DoC’s sole responsibility at Pike was preservation of the National Park above the mine.  But its considerable influence in the decision making process, particularly over the placement of access and ventilation, made it a lethal partner and arguably culpable in the Pike River mine deaths.

The Royal Commission Report said, “Pike gave no evidence to indicate that DOC’s controls compromised its ability to develop a productive and safe mine“.   Gave no evidence?  Did the Commission even ask the question?  A public review of the effects of DoC controls at Pike was never carried out and the Royal Commission was confident Pike would not raise it!  Pike did not have either the resources or the appetite to take on the government over DoC’s interference.  

Given the cost in lives, we have to consider DoC’s involvement in the poorly designed Pike River Mine.

So that we don’t repeat history we should also review the government’s decision to create a conservation park without considering its underlying economic value.  In the case of the Paparoa National Park, the Government decided that environmental and recreational values were more important than economic ones. 

Tragically this wasn’t a public debate.  Mining didn’t then and doesn’t now, have a voice and the process for the creation of Paparoa National Park was flawed.  

A research paper written in 1995 by William Randall at Lincoln University uses the establishment of Paparoa National Park as an example of a value conflict by the state.  The author asks the question Does the natural-resource decision-making process in New Zealand acknowledge and incorporate different values?”  He also comments that “If different values are to be considered in the final decision then decision-making processes need to be conducted openly and honestly, with all sides listening and respecting each other’s positions”.  

An open and honest conversation between the mining company and conservationists, with public consultation, to bring all the factors into the open may have resulted in a decision that safely accommodated economic and conservation values.  

Contrary to conservationist belief, mining companies are sympathetic to conservation issues.

Whatever shady deals went on behind closed doors between conservation groups and government boffins, the conservation area was established and Pike silently suffered the consequences. 

Pike’s licence to the coal beneath the ground was unchanged, but mine access and subsequent design all became subject to DoC approval.  

DoC’s sole function was “to protect the conservation value of the land” which the Royal Commission Report into Pike River said they fully discharged.

The cost of DoC discharging their duty turned out to be 29 lives.

Photo of the Tag Board at Pike River Mine from New Zealand History Pike River Mine Disaster

DoC was already responsible for the loss of 14 lives in the Paparoa National Park at Cave Creek in 1995.  It was later revealed that serious systemic failures had led to the building of the unstable platform.  A Commission of Inquiry found that the Department of Conservation had acted illegally and negligently in constructing the platform and that there had been a series of mistakes that had led to the collapse of the platform.

This makes a total of 43 lives lost in the Paparoa National Park under DoC’s watch.

When will we learn that government boffins are lethal weapons when they are given unbridled power in specialized decision making?

The Pike mine design was fundamentally flawed to accommodate its position under conservation land.  The Pike mine had one access drive, or entry, instead of the planned two.  This drive ran uphill allowing methane to accumulate in the mine rather than dispersing down the drive.  Because methane is lighter than air it will accumulate along the roof of a mine.  

The single ventilation shaft doubled as the only exit.  Earlier trials to use this as an escape route were an abject failure.  We all witnessed flames coming from the so-called escape route for days after the explosions in the mine.

Flames from the ventilation shaft following underground explosions Photo from NZ History Pike River Mine Explosion Kills 29

High-grade coking coal has a high methane content and Pike was mining the coal seam that had exploded in 1896, killing all 65 men underground in the Brunner Coal Mine.

The greenies and the government boffins who kowtowed to them are complicit in the Pike River tragedy.

This does not absolve the Pike Board of their responsibilities but that is a whole other story.  Stay tuned.

DOC staff at the site of the proposed Moonlight Tops hut on the planned Pike 29 Paparoa Walking Track

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