Pike River: A big hole in the ground we are throwing money into


Andrew Little’s Pike River mine promise is going to cost more than expected. Is anyone surprised?  Quote:

The plan to re-enter the Pike River mine could cost up to $12 milllion more than the $23 million budget, Stuff understands.
Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry Andrew Little announced on the West Coast today that he is set to sign off on the re-entry concept plans for the mine.
The Government had budgeted $7.6 million a year for three years, totalling up to $23m, for the Pike River Recovery Agency and re-entry to the mine.  End of quote.

So that’s 35 million dollars of proposed spending to locate 29 bodies that are in a hole in the ground, and move them to a different hole in the ground.  Months, possibly years of ongoing trauma for all of the families of the miners, whether they want their loved ones remains disturbed or not.  Quote:

An explosion ripped through the West Coast mine on November 19, 2010, killing 29 men. Their bodies have not been recovered.

The agency had completed a concept plan for re-entry and it is now before Little for approval. He said his independent advisor, former Air NZ chief executive Rob Fyfe, had approved the process and the concept plan.

Little wanted to update all the Pike River families before signing off on the concept plan, which had been developed by the agency after two workshops with technical experts. All 29 families were invited to a briefing on the plan at the agency in Greymouth on Saturday.[…]  End of quote. 

Sonya Rockhouse has had a lot of air time in the past as spokesperson for the families, and as per this article, Anna Osbourne is a re-entry campaigner and Rowdy Durbridge also gets a mention as being happy with the re-entry plan.  So these three people represent three of the 29 families who lost loved ones. What I would like to know is how the other 26 families feel about the re-entry plan. It’s difficult to know because they are not vocal about it. I would hope that their wishes are being considered, whatever they may be.

The article says all 29 families were invited to the briefing, but how many of them went along to hear what the plan was, and are they all in favour of the proposed re-entry? Is this a situation where the opinions of a vocal few are outweighing the beliefs of the silent majority?  Quote:

[…]  “We won’t know exactly what the figures are until more detailed work has been done. I’ve briefed both Cabinet and the relevant Parliamentary Select Committee to expect it will cost more than we originally anticipated when we put the agency together at the end of last year,” he said.

Cabinet had indicated it would “top up” the budget because it was fully committed to the project. The coalition Government had made a commitment to re-enter the drift if it could be done safely, he said.[…]  End of quote.   

So it could end up being more than $35 million.  This could just be a big hole that we pour millions of dollars into. All based on the get out clause – if it could be done safely.

And it’s a big if.  I’m just not sure how you can consider it safe to go back into a mine that is known to be high in methane gas and that has already exploded four times.

As with all disasters, there is never just one event that causes it to happen. It’s a series of mistakes, that if any one of them was addressed, the disaster may have been avoided. The sinking of the Titanic is a good example. Missing binoculars made it harder to spot icebergs, increased speed meant slower stopping time.  There were not enough lifeboats, and passengers were unprepared for immersion in freezing water. This is just a few, there were many more errors, all of which contributed to the disaster.

The same is true for Pike River Mine. Based on its design and high methane levels in the coal, Pike River was a mine that was always going to end in disaster. It was just a matter of when, and the only real surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner than it did.

Based on what I know about it, the two biggest contributing factors were:

Inadequate research and expertise before the mine even began.

There were not enough core samples taken so that the size and direction of the coal seam was not properly understood before mining began. Best practice would be that core samples are drilled vertically from the surface before even deciding whether a mine is viable or not. This has a double benefit. 

1) You know exactly where the coal seam is before you start mining, so there are no surprises when you actually begin removing coal.

2) A vertical sample hole can assist with venting methane, which is lighter than air, up to the surface and out of the mine.

This was not done for Pike River, and this lead to considerable delays because the coal seam they were extracting from disappeared as the seam dipped below where it was expected to be. More core samples had to be drilled to find out where the seam lay. To save time, the decision was made to drill core holes horizontally from within the mine.  This meant that the boreholes directed any methane back into the mine, rather than away from it.

Poor management

The mine got initial approval from investors by making overly ambitious and unrealistic predictions about how soon coal would be extracted and how much money it would make. This put pressure on management and workers to deliver “as promised”. This caused decisions to be made with a focus on meeting coal extraction targets, while safe mining practices took a back seat. Rather than be honest and realistic about when the mine could reasonably expect to be profitable, the positive reporting and unrealistic deadlines continued, despite many setbacks, and management seemed unwilling to deliver bad news.

This continued even after the explosion. Even though it was clear to those responsible for any potential rescue that there was, in fact, no-one alive to rescue, the families were not told the truth about the situation. Instead, they were conned into thinking there was still hope when there was none.

Another critical decision was to purchase continuous mining machines from a company that had never built them before. The vehicles proved to be unreliable and constantly broke down, which had a direct impact the on the production of coal from the mine.

Here’s a quick summary of the facts that I think are most relevant:

  • There was an explosion at Pike River Mine on 19th November 2010 at 3.45pm.
  • 31 men were underground at the time.
  • As evidenced by the film recordings at the entrance to the drift, the first explosion lasted 52 seconds.  Think about that for 52 seconds.   It’s a long time.  Think about how much energy, heat, toxic gases and shock waves that explosion would have generated.
  • CO2 readings indicate a probable internal temperature of 4500 degrees centigrade.
  • On the day of the explosion, the situation was confused and it took 41 minutes after the initial explosion for the mine control room to acknowledge that there had been a catastrophic event.
  • Two men were able to walk out of the mine after the first explosion because they happened to be the two that were furthest from where the blast was thought to be, and closest to the mine entrance.  As it was, they were almost overcome and lucky to make it out, it took them 1 hour 42 minutes to exit the mine after the explosion.
  • On 24th November there was a 2nd explosion at the mine, and further explosions on 26th and 28th November.

There are a couple of myths about Pike River that have perpetuated over the years.

That some of the 29 men survived the first explosion.

Based on the evidence, it is extremely unlikely.  Three reasons: heat, shockwaves and carbon monoxide.  CO2 readings taken outside the mine indicate a probable internal temperature of 4500 degrees centigrade.  The shock wave from the explosion knocked Daniel Rockhouse off his feet, even though he was in a diesel refuelling bay off the main tunnel.  He was then overcome with carbon monoxide and unconscious for about 50 minutes.  Of the two men who survived, he was closest to the mine itself.  The 2nd man to survive was 300 metres further out than Daniel, and was shielded from the blast by the machine he was working in.  It’s highly unlikely anyone else closer to the explosion survived the initial blast, and even less likely they survived the oxygen deprivation and carbon monoxide concentrations immediately afterward.

The Fire Brigade noted atmospheric levels of carbon monoxide at 700 ppm at 10pm on the day of the explosion.  At 800 ppm, the following symptoms occur: Headache, nausea, and dizziness after 45 minutes; collapse and unconsciousness after 1 hour of exposure.  Death within 2-3 hours.  These readings were taken outside the mine, as all internal gas-monitoring had been destroyed by the explosion.  It’s reasonable to assume that conditions inside the mine would have been even less survivable, and this is supported by the survivors being overcome by carbon monoxide within minutes.  So based on these external readings at 10pm, 6 hours after the explosion, there most definitely would have been no-one still alive.

There was a window where re-entry could have been achieved safely.

This is simply not true.  In coal mines, secondary explosions are common, and can happen minutes, hours or days after the first explosion.  There are no rules and no way to know what a particular mine will do, because every mine has a different layout and different methane levels. Any re-entry to attempt a rescue was more likely than not to result in more lives lost. Also, we must remember, it took 45 minutes to realise that a rescue was even required. Longer still to assemble the rescue team. Further to this, each of the Mines Rescue volunteers were asked individually by John Key whether they thought a rescue attempt had merit. All of them said it was not right to go back in.

There has been some kind of cover up

There has been a Royal Commission of Enquiry into the disaster, which is independent and is required to follow a robust process. The enquiry revealed the many poor management decisions, only a few of which I have touched on here. It also revealed that there were ongoing safety issues raised by the miners.  Management did not adequately address these safety issues, and even though the miners were unhappy about the lack of action taken with regard to their safety concerns, they did not escalate to get a resolution.  The facts revealed about the disaster show that it was caused by human incompetence on many levels, and pressure from shareholders to make the mine profitable against unrealistic delivery targets. The facts are available, they are raw and compelling.  There is no cover up. 

Two companies were prosecuted for a total of 12 breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act in 2012.  Valley Longwall was fined $46,800, Pike River was fined $760,000 and ordered to pay $3.41 million to the families in reparation. Because the company was in receivership by this time, receivers said there was only enough money to pay $5000 per family. The 12 charges against Peter Whittall, Chief Executive of Pike River Coal, for breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act, were eventually dropped in 2013. It was considered the trial would be long and costly, with little chance of success.

No charges were laid for manslaughter. This doesn’t sit well with me. The explosion at Pike River mine was not an unavoidable accident. It could have been prevented at many different stages, but wasn’t, largely due to incompetent management. If it was one of my family that had been killed that day, I would want someone to be held accountable for their death. Going back into the mine will do nothing to achieve that.

All 29 men are dead.  That is tragic, but nothing can bring them back. They are in their grave. Let’s leave them to rest in peace.


Acknowledgement: Tragedy at Pike River Mine is a book written by investigative journalist Rebecca Macfie.  I have based my views on Pike River on what I have read in her very detailed and factual investigation into the disaster.   For anyone wanting more detail, I can really recommend this book.

 


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