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Charges dropped against New Zealand mine blast boss

The scene following the explosion in 2010. Picture: Reuters

The scene following the explosion in 2010. Picture: Reuters

  • by ALISTAIR MUNRO
 

The family of a Scot killed with 28 others in an explosion in a New Zealand mine have expressed shock after learning that all charges against the former mining boss have been dropped.

Malcolm Campbell, 25, from St Andrews, died along with fellow Scot Pete Rodger, 40, from Perth, and 27 other miners when methane explosions rocked the Pike River coal mine in 2010.

Last year, the New Zealand government charged former chief executive Peter Whittall with 12 counts of violating labour laws following the blast.

Each charge carried a maximum fine of £126,265.

But yesterday government lawyers said they would be dropping the charges in exchange for a payment of 3.41 million New Zealand dollars (about £1.72m), made on behalf of company officials to victims’ families.

In a statement the government said the probability of convicting Whittall had been low, given the evidence available, and that instead his offer of a payment would be accepted. Whittall has also agreed to meet relatives of the victims.

The news was broken to distraught relatives ahead of the government announcement by family lawyers, with Mr Campbell’s parents, Malcolm snr and Jane, informed via a tele-conference at 4am.

His mother, speaking from the family home in the village of Cameron, near St Andrews, said: “It was a shock that all charges were dropped. But it is not going to bring the boys back.

“Some of the relatives in New Zealand were angry. They are pretty disgusted.

“Over here we are a bit more removed from it. Other family members over there have seen Whittall and know him. We don’t really know him as a person, so can’t say anything about him as a person. But there was no real evidence to prosecute.”

The victims’ families, however, have been told that new charges may be brought if new evidence is found during work to re-enter the collapsed tunnel.

But Mrs Campbell and her husband are more concerned about these efforts hopefully recovering the bodies of those who died, including their son.

Mrs Campbell said: “Ultimately, the scenario we would like is to get Malcolm home. By this time next year we will hopefully know one way or the other.

“If there are any bodies in the main draft then they will be recovered. But they won’t know about the rockfall until they get in. If they find evidence then, yes, charges could be brought, but against who? There is no corporate manslaughter in New Zealand. And it is a shame everything is targeted at Peter Whittall. The buck shouldn’t stop with just him.

“The mine should never have been opened, and Peter Whittall was instrumental in getting the mine opened. It was error after error, but there is more than just him.”

But many in New Zealand are unhappy that charges against Whittall have been dropped.

Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton died in the explosion, told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that she has lost faith in the justice system.

“It is just another slap in the face for the families,” she said, adding that “as far as I’m concerned, it’s blood money”.

Another relative, Melissa Byrne, whose partner Sam Mackie was killed, told the newspaper she felt nobody was being held responsible for the disaster.

A government investigation found the now-bankrupt coal company ignored 21 warnings that methane gas had accumulated to explosive levels in the South Island mine.

The company was convicted in April of nine health and safety violations after it did not contest the charges. The New Zealand government is funding a £3.6m exploration of the mine.

 

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