Investigation finds New Zealand mine blast that killed two Scots ‘was preventable’

Flames pour out of the Pike River mine. Picture: Getty
Flames pour out of the Pike River mine. Picture: Getty
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THE New Zealand mine in which 29 men died – two of them Scots – should never have been allowed to begin production, such was the catalogue of health and safety failings, an official inquiry revealed yesterday.

• Safety systems at the Pike River mine were found to be inadequate, and reports warning of excessive levels of methane were ‘not heeded’

• 21 reports of methane levels reaching explosive volumes in 48 days before blast, with 27 reports of lesser but potentially dangerous volumes

• Report finds a drive for production before mine was complete, along with a lack of adequate health and safety led to explosion

The father of one of the Scots killed said he was “disappointed and angry” after the Royal Commission inquiry criticised the owners for exposing staff to “unacceptable risk” in a desperate attempt to stay solvent.

Peter Rodger, 40, and Malcolm Campbell, 25, died alongside 27 fellow miners on 19 November, 2010, when a build-up of methane gas in the Pike River mine ignited at 3:45pm. The Royal Commission stated that the men would have been killed almost instantly by the explosion or shortly after by the toxic atmosphere and that the mine’s chief executive, Peter Whittall gave the families false hope of rescue, though not deliberately.

Malcolm Campbell awoke at 2am yesterday to read the report into his son’s death as soon as it was published online in New Zealand and described it as “damning”.

He said: “I just feel angry, very, very angry. My son and the rest of the lads had their whole life ahead of them. The company had no interest in them, they just wanted the coal out.”

The Royal Commission paints a grim picture of a company on the verge of collapse and desperate to dig out as much coal as possible, with warnings routinely ignored. In the two days before the explosion, there were 21 reports of methane levels reaching explosive levels and 27 reports of lesser, but still potentially dangerous volumes. The commission said: “The reports of excess methane continued up to the very morning of the tragedy. The warnings were not heeded.”

The company began operating the mine before health and safety systems were properly in place. The drainage and ventilation systems designed to draw off the methane gas produced during mining operations “could not cope” with the company’s ambitious plans, which included driving roadways through the coal, drilling ahead into the coal seam and extracting coal by hydro-mining.

The report uncovered an April 2010 memo that was chillingly prescient. An underwriter e-mailed management to say: “History has shown us in the mining industry that methane, when given the write (sic) environment, will show us no mercy. It is my opinion that it is time we took our methane drainage…more seriously and redesigned our entire system.” The warning was ignored.

In the original mine plan, it was deemed necessary to fit two main fans on the mountainside next to a ventilation shaft. However, Pike sited the fans underground, the first time this had been done anywhere in the world, and, according to the report, it was “a major error”.

As the company had just one mine – its sole means of revenue – a shutdown to tackle safety issues was not considered viable. Despite running constantly, the firm had to borrow continually to stay afloat.

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

“In the drive towards coal production, the directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety and exposed the company’s workers to unacceptable risks. Mining should have stopped until the risks could be properly managed.”

The report said former chairman John Dow assumed things were under control “unless told otherwise”. However, the lawyer for the company’s former board members, including Mr Dow, said her clients strongly disagreed with the findings. “They maintain they acted appropriately,” she said.

On the day of the explosion, the men were due to leave the mine at 4pm. After the blast, two men, who were in the main stone tunnel, escaped.

Within minutes of the explosion, the mine manager was told that no-one had reported from underground or called the control room. An electrician was sent to investigate and he managed to drive 1,500 metres before the poisonous atmosphere forced him to retreat, but he had spotted a vehicle and someone lying on the roadway. It was only when he reported this at 4:25pm – 40 minutes after the explosion – that the emergency services were contacted.

Yesterday, New Zealand prime minister John Key apologised to the families of the dead miners and said the commission made clear that the fault for the country’s worst mining disaster for 96 years lay with the owners. He said the company “did not follow good management and best practice principles”. He added: “On behalf of the government I apologise to the families, friends and loved ones of the deceased men for the role this lack of regulatory effectiveness played in the tragedy.”

However, the lawyer representing the families of victims, Nicholas Davidson QC, said the report gave an “unrelenting picture of failure at virtually every level. He said the Department of Labour had failed in its role as inspectorate. “Virtually nothing is a surprise here, except the emphatic nature of the conclusions reached. It seems to the families that this company was running on empty, financially, where safety was seconded to production.”

Whittall, the former chief executive of Pike River Mine, last month pleaded not guilty to labour violation charges. A contractor at the mine admitted three health and safety charges last July.

Pete Rodger moved to New Zealand from Perthshire two years before the disaster to be closer to his mother and sister.

The mine’s new owners have said they would attempt to retrieve the bodies if it “can be achieved safely, is technically feasible and is financially credible”, but Mr Campbell said yesterday he has largely accepted he will be unable to bring his son home. He will visit New Zealand this month to say goodbye to him.

Malcolm Campbell jnr was an apprentice at a Fife paper mill before finding work in Australia as a miner. After a year, he moved to New Zealand to take up work at the Pike River mine.

Mr Campbell said last night: “We have to accept that this is Malcolm’s final resting place.”