Going back into Pike River using the cheapest, not the safest option

Photoshopped image credit: Pixy

Andrew Little has taken the Pike River Recovery Agency’s recommendation of using the cheapest, but not the safest option out of the three options tabled recently for re-entering the Pike River mine. Is money a factor? Undoubtedly, as is scoring political points against the National party, who considered and refused re-entry.

Recommended mining practice is a second entry/exit, which of course is not available with this option. However, they will drill an unknown number of small bore holes to assist with pumping gas and ventilation. Explaining the risks around choosing a less safe option is a bit like the explanation for the Pike River mine with its uphill drive and single entrance and exit, not recommended practice, but let’s tweak a few things and do it anyway.

Geologist Dr Murray Cave told Newstalk ZB that Solid Energy had discarded the idea of using the existing portal to re-enter the mine for safety reasons, and added that it would be difficult and expensive.

Andrew Little and representatives of the Pike River families announced their plan to re-enter the mine to attempt recovery of the remains of the 29 men who died in the mine, four days before the 8 year anniversary of the disaster this Monday.

This recovery operation goes as far as the area known as pit bottom in stone, because any further is blocked by a large rockfall which could be anything from 30 to 50 metres in length.  The miners were working in the mine beyond the rock fall and it is not known how many, if any, miners made it back to pit bottom in stone where this recovery operation ceases.

Little is satisfied this is a safe plan for re-entering the mine but it requires an additional $13M funding which will bring the total estimate of $23M up to $36M. Little said cabinet has already approved the additional funding.

Preparatory work has begun at the mine site.  Work includes replacing the portal doors in the tunnel which were damaged in the explosions, restoration of a high voltage power supply and the acquisition of a nitrogen plant.  The nitrogen plant is already on site and will soon be brought into service.

Over the next several weeks the additional small boreholes to assist pumping and ventilation and other preparatory work will begin.

The first major task to gain re-entry is to breach the 30-metre seal in the drift, and this is likely to commence in February next year.

Little read the following statement from the Agency report: quote.

A culture of safety first, deliberate and meticulous planning, well developed standard operating procedures, training and rehearsals and conditions-based operations is fundamental to the successful prosecution of these recovery operations.

There is a lot that we do not know, and will not know until we are confronted with the situation as we find it underground.

This will require agile thinking, the courage of all to say ‘no’ if we are uncomfortable, the preparedness to reassess, re-set and re-plan where necessary and knowing when to call it quits.

The detailed recovery plan will shortly be available on the Pike River Recovery website.End of quote.

Darn tootin’ right that safety has to come first after the original totally avoidable disaster. But money is always a factor and any changes to the outlined plan will mean more money must be spent.

Already over budget and outside the expected timeline for re-entry, they are harping on about the inclement conditions they may face underground, thus giving themselves plenty of wiggle room to ignore promises, or even completion of the project, if they feel so inclined.

The government has left the door open on cost and timeline because of the unknown conditions.  Whatever assurances they gave to families and the public, this is still, as all mining is, an inherently risky operation.

There is no guarantee that the families’ expectation to recover all 29 bodies will be met. In fact, only the miners who made it back to pit bottom in stone can possibly be recovered in this operation.

At the moment families are gung-ho and positive about recovery, but Little has been more than a little coy, and given himself a huge get out of jail for free card with the instruction to the recovery team that they will have “the courage to say ‘no'” at any point in the operation.

Bernie Monk has been representing the families and he was interviewed after Little’s announcement, telling Duncan Garner “the fight is about to start,” also saying: quote.

It’s not all about getting men out, it’s about bringing justice and accountability, we didn’t get that and everyone’s swept it under the carpet, and today that starts. And we are going to make sure that justice and accountability also gets put on the table, as well as re-entry” End of quote.

This is a concern because if the families really want justice, in my opinion, they are looking in completely the wrong place. They should be looking at the Pike River Mine Board of Directors who, at the time of the disaster, individually had zero to minimal mining experience, and they did not carry out their directorships responsibly.

On the other side of the same liability coin, ask whether the families are prepared for hard questions about contractor and employee culpability if banned items are found underground? Will Andrew Little front up to hard questions about his union involvement through employee safety complaints leading up to the disaster when he was National Secretary of the EPMU?

This is not a place where the deceased families or Little want to go.  But it is far easier for them to pursue their goals by heaping blame on the head of the National government, which is exactly what Little expected Monk to do, and Monk did not disappoint.  Little must be rubbing his hands together in glee at this political win for Labour, even if he is looking back nervously over his shoulder.

Garner asked Monk about the huge obstacle that 30 metres of concrete presents to the recovery team. Monk said the National government had put it in place to cover up the truth in the mine: quote.

Listen, they were covering up.  There’s no two ways about that, and we have evidence of what covering up went on there and we had to bring bodies to the table, you know, to show people that there are bodies to recover.  We’ve done everything in our power to make sure this happens. There’s been a huge cover up and we are going to make sure that this doesn’t happen up there. We are going to bring the truth out, and we are also going to make sure that families in the future, of any other disasters don’t have to go through the things that we’ve had to go through. We want to make New Zealand proud of our country and we start from today”. End of quote.

Clearly, the National government did not want to go back down the mine.  Possibly because of the cost and the inability to re-enter safely plus the futility of extracting bodies already buried most likely beyond reach.

A more reasonable explanation for the extraordinary 30-metre barrier in the drift is that it is less of a cover-up and more of an unassailable barrier to ensure the safety of anyone with an ounce of underground mining experience deciding to take themselves off for a little nosy down the mine.

However, Monk’s comments do raise genuine concerns about the families’ expectations, because it is clear that their hopes for justice and accountability are going to be dashed whether bodies are recovered or not.


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