Who made Peter Whittall the fall guy?

It’s completely natural for families who have lost loved ones to put the blame on someone, anyone in fact. They’ve suffered through no fault of their own and so yes, someone else is to blame, but is that someone Peter Whittall?

Peter Whittal, previous CEO of Pike River Mine at the time of the 2010 tragedy, now absent from the mining industry. Photo credit Stuff.

At the trial following the Pike River disaster where charges were laid under the Health and Safety in Employment Act Judge Farish summed up the Pike disaster as “the health and safety event of this generation … a worse case is hard to imagine.” Quote.

Peter Whittall was charged on 12 counts of acquiescing or participating in the failures of Pike River Coal, and of failing to take all practicable steps as an employee of the company to ensure that nothing he did (or didn’t do) caused other workers harm. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.” End of quote.

The charges against Whittall were dropped because the ministry’s lawyer Mark Zarifeh said it faced: quote.

substantial problems’ in its case against Whittall, who has maintained his innocence and had earlier entered not guilty pleas.” End of quote.

Pike River families were understandably unhappy that Whittall was off the hook because he had been painted as the villain in the disaster by the Pike River Board, local ministers of parliament, government agencies, local council, the Pike families, the New Zealand media and consequently most of the rest of New Zealand.

Independent contractors employed by Pike River Mines stumped up and accepted their contribution to the disaster by pleading guilty. Quote.

Valley Longwall, the company hired by Pike to undertake in- seam drilling in the mine, pleaded guilty to three charges related to the operation of its drill rig despite Pike having failed for months to carry out essential safety checks. It was fined $46,800.”  End of quote.

The company itself was found guilty on all counts. It did not appear at the hearings, although in fairness this was likely due to its precarious financial state. Quote.

Pike River Coal was charged with nine offences under the Act. The failed company – still under the control of the receivers – did not put in an appearance at the Greymouth Court hearing, and did not present any evidence in defence or mitigation. Judge Jane Farish ruled against it in a decision that recorded “an accumulation of errors and omissions which transpired over a number of years”. She found “a systematic failure of the company to implement and audit its own (inadequate) safety plans and procedures”. End of quote.

At the end of the day the buck did stop at the top and the company was found guilty. But the directors walked away unable to be charged under New Zealand legislation at the time. Changes in the law as a result of Pike River now reflect a director’s accountability for the health and safety of their workers.

The Pike River board members are not only guilty of failing to ensure worker safety but were callously remorseless and silent on their culpability as Judge Farish commented. Quote.

The company had demonstrated a total lack of remorse. “It is not often a company steps back and holds its hands up and says, ‘I have nothing.’ Even a company in a fragile state usually comes forward and offers reparation, but here nothing has been forthcoming. End of quote.

Television footage after the catastrophe depicts Peter Whittall as a broken man, and possibly he is bitter about being made the fall guy when he said: quote

Do I feel guilt? No,” Peter Whittall told Stuff. “It is human nature to blame someone.” End of quote.

Perhaps an unfortunate choice of words from someone who has suffered one of the worst experiences that could happen to anyone working in an industry they loved.  Whittall would have personally felt the loss of the men he worked with, and then suffered further pain when he was hung out to dry to boot.


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