Race for coal production exposed Pike River workers to risks

Nov. 5 (BusinessDesk) – Workers at Pike River Coal’s mine, closed after deadly explosions claimed 29 lives, were exposed to “unacceptable risks” as a result of the financially strapped company’s race to start producing and selling coal, a report has found.

The Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy has made 16 recommendations to improve the safety of coal mining in New Zealand, a country that has conducted 12 such inquiries into coal mining disasters.

“This suggests that as a country we fail to learn from the past,” the commissioners said in their report.

The commission found fault with both bureaucratic systems and mine management and governance. The explosions themselves would have been caused by the build-up of methane in a mine that lacked sufficient ventilation and escape access.

“It is the commission’s view that even though the company was operating in a known high-hazard industry, the board of directors did not ensure that health and safety was being properly managed and the executive managers did not properly assess the health and safety risks that the workers were facing,” the report says.

“In the drive towards coal production the directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to the health and safety and exposed the company’s workers to unacceptable risks,” it said.

Pike River was put in receivership following the explosions in November 2010 and the site is now owned by state-owned Solid Energy. The commission found that Pike River was in “a particularly difficult situation” with only one mine from which to derive revenue and the need to keep borrowing to fund operations. Development of the mine proved far more difficult than the company had expected.

Prime Minister John Key issued an apology “to the families, friends and loved ones of the deceased men for the role this lack of regulatory effectiveness played in the tragedy” and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson resigned her portfolio after the report showed government oversight of the mine development was lacking.

“I speak on behalf of the government when I say I regret deeply what has happened, in terms of the lives lost and suffering caused,” Key said.

The Royal Commission found the Department of Labour didn’t have the focus, capacity or strategies to ensure Pike was meeting its legal responsibilities under health and safety laws, Key said.

“The government accepts there were systemic failures in the regulatory regime across successive governments,” he said. “This meant that failures by Pike River Coal were not picked up and remedied as they should have been.”

The commission is clear much of the fault lies with Pike River Coal, which had inadequate health and safety systems, he said. But the commission also found that “the regulatory environment was not effective over a long period of time.”

Among the 16 recommendations, the commission recommends a new Crown agency be established focusing solely on health and safety. An effective regulatory framework for underground coalmining should be established urgently, it says.

The commission notes that the lack of coordinated regulatory oversight stemmed back to legislative reform in 1992, when the Coal Mines Act was replaced by a system where several bodies had part of the responsibility for the mine and the mines inspectorate “no longer had a role throughout the life of the mine.”



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