The explosion that shook the country

It was such a good story. Pike River mine was to be a showcase for modern mining, extracting coal with surgical precision and leaving barely a mark on the environment. New Zealand Oil and Gas was going to show the West Coast a thing or two about mining, and make very handsome profits for its investors.

pike river

But behind the promise and media hype, a very different story was playing out. It’s this story that journalist Rebecca Macfie relates in her book Tragedy at Pike River Mine, a compelling account of corporate arrogance, ineptitude, failure and criminal neglect that led to the deaths of 29 men.

We asked Rebecca if anger sometimes got the better of her when she was writing the book. “People tell me they read the book and felt full of rage and that’s what I was experiencing for two years while I was covering the royal commission,” she says.

“It’s one of those stories where you think you’ve heard the unbelievable, and next day you’d hear something even more unbelievable. By the time I sat down to work full-time on the book, I was in a state of cold determination. There was a huge amount of research to be done and I had to be right.”

Rebecca sees the biggest contributing factor to the tragedy as the “flawed and self-interested assumptions” of NZOG when the project was getting up and attracting attention from the media and investors.  


Seeds of the disaster

“It was on the basis of totally under-cooked research and ever-more excitable projections. I think everything goes from there. Once that path has been set, workers and managers come in later on and assume the projections must be right. Until you have cause to question the fundamentals, people don’t.”  

But you can go back to the reforms of the 1990s for the seeds of the tragedy. In 1992, the government got rid of check inspectors – miners with the training and authority to monitor health and safety standards and close the mine if necessary. Later, it dismantled the specialist mines inspectorate.

When Pike went for its mining permit, the systematic checks of plans, safety systems and company competence had largely gone. The company had no underground coal mining experience and was basing the mine on inadequate geological information. Yet it was able to obtain permits to go ahead. There was no scrutiny of the health and safety systems. 

Rebecca says it wouldn’t have got through ten years earlier because the mines inspectorate was still intact and had a say in how mining permits were issued.

“Government reforms broke down the system. You had the mining permits handled by Crown Minerals and the mines inspectorate divided off and put into the Department of Labour. The two wings of mine oversight were completely detached from one another.

“Crown Minerals took no advice from the health and safety inspectorate and the inspectorate was given no chance to give any advice. Whether it was capable by that time is another matter as it had been pretty much dismantled as the specialist inspectorate.”

“It was a great collision of corporate arrogance and deregulatory history.”

By the time the mine exploded, there were two mines inspectors for the whole of New Zealand, and one of them was a trainee.  


Safety ignored

Reading the book, you realise that, from the start, the safety of miners in this hazardous environment was never seriously thought about, or cared about.

The only emergency exit was a 111-metre vertical ladder. Even the fittest would struggle to climb it at the best of times. A test in 2009 showed it would be impossible for workers to escape to safety in an emergency. 

The mine was “gassy” with methane an ever-present hazard. A detailed ventilation plan to “keep gas levels safe and workers free from the risk of asphyxiation and explosion” had been drawn up but was never implemented. Workers experienced frightening gas ignitions with flames shooting across the ceiling.

So why did the mine workers, with their history of militancy, not down tools and walk off the job?

“It’s an interesting question,” says Rebacca. “The mine was basically a non-union shop. The EPMU was slowly building its membership but there is no question that Pike didn’t welcome the union and Peter Whithall [who ran the mine] made it difficult for the union to be involved.

“Experienced miners who knew what was good practice left. Others didn’t like the sound of the place and were wary so they kept away.  So you had a high proportion of inexperienced workers – cleanskins – who had no depth of knowledge or instinct about good practice.”

Added to that, says Rebecca, you had a company believing its own bullshit. “That’s a powerful part of the equation. There was this pervasive culture that everything was really good so therefore it was really good.”

The only good thing at Pike River was the work they did with DOC to protect the environment, she says.  “You have to go there to see what an incredible job they did from an environmental point of view.”

And one other thing: “As John Dow, the chairman of NZOG told me, the other very, very successful thing they did was raising money. Every capital raising – and there were four in three years – got all the money they were looking for.”

Right to the end, people believed the story. Virtually no coal was ever extracted.

On 29 November 2010, a massive gas explosion ripped through the mine. Two miners escaped. The remaining 29 were trapped and almost certainly killed instantly.


No-one to call a halt

As Rebecca earlier reported in the Listener, the royal commission found the explosion was a preventable tragedy.

“With a mines inspectorate that had been in decline for years, and a board and management who were focused on production, there was no-one to call a halt before the inevitable catastrophe struck.”

The commission has recommended sweeping regulatory changes, including the establishment of a new Crown agent focused solely on health and safety, and calls urgently for an effective framework for underground coal mining.

Safety needs to be considered from before mining permits are issued, and the statutory responsibilities of directors for health and safety should be reviewed. It says directors should “rigorously review and monitor their organisation’s compliance with health and safety law and best practice.

Worker participation is essential, with trained health and safety reps and union-appointed check inspectors empowered to call a halt to dangerous practices.


This article is from the March 2014 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.