Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse at the announcement this morning. Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King/RNZ

A victory for the Pike River families – and for those who live by their labour

Rebecca Macfie, author of Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and Why 29 Men Died, explains why today’s announcement by Andrew Little that the mine drift will be re-entered is such a historic moment.

After eight years, the Pike River Mine drift will be re-entered, explored and treated as the crime scene that it is. Anna Osborne calls the decision – announced this morning by Pike River Recovery Minister Andrew Little – as a “victory for the little people in New Zealand”.

It is part of the tragedy of Pike that she is right.

Instead of the institutions of the state treating the worst industrial disaster in almost a century with due seriousness by doing everything possible and practical to investigate the cause, it took the exhaustive struggle of Osborne, Sonya Rockhouse and the Pike families’ chief spokesperson Bernie Monk to achieve today’s outcome.

Two years ago the mine drift was about to be permanently sealed with a 30-metre plug of concrete by the then owner, the financially crippled Solid Energy. Osborne and Rockhouse went to the gates to stop it happening, and they were joined in their protest vigil by more and more supporters. Contractors refused go past their picket. It was an extraordinary show of defiance: they prevented the sealing from going ahead, and thus kept open the possibility that re-entry could still occur.

At the same time Osborne and Rockhouse were fighting through the courts to overturn the decision to drop charges against the former mine boss, Peter Whittall.

Whittall, remember, had walked away in late 2013 from 12 charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, in return for the payment of $3.41 million to the families – money they were already owed by the bankrupt company, and which was paid by the Pike directors’ insurers.

Osborne and Rockhouse won that fight, too. A year ago the Supreme Court ruled that the decision drop charges in exchange for money was an unlawful bargain.

The “little people”, Osborne said this morning, “sometimes feel it’s too hard to carry on and win a battle because there are so many road blocks being put in the way.

“You need to be that squeaky wheel, you need to be that voice, and if you believe in something hard enough and long enough, you will get people to listen. Our men went to work that day. They didn’t expect not to return back to their loved ones. We didn’t expect not to ever see them again. So, for our men, we couldn’t just let things lie, and say ‘that’s it’ and wash our hands of it. We needed to fight. We need to bring our men home if we can. We need answers to questions that we don’t have. We need that unexplored crime scene investigated.”

Last year’s Supreme Court ruling went some way to repairing the dignity of the judicial process; today’s decision goes some way to restoring the mana of those who live by their labour and who are entitled to the protection of vigilant bosses and a competent regulator.

Osborne knows she has become, by dint of personal tragedy, a fighter for justice on broader front. She is devoted to the legacy of her husband, Milton – but more than that, she has become a voice for all of those who suffer the ultimate disempowerment at work. As she said this morning, more than 400 people have died on the job since Pike.

“That’s simply not good enough. We need to change our working culture in New Zealand.”

So how will re-entry happen, and what might be achieved from it?

In very simple terms, the methane in the drift and mine working areas will firstly be flushed out (through boreholes) by nitrogen. Nitrogen will continue to be injected into the upper reaches of the drift via a pipeline. Fresh air will be pumped up the drift by a ventilation fan. The nitrogen will create a barrier, preventing the fresh air from mixing with methane emanating from the coal seam and creating an explosive “fringe”.

This will enable workers to enter the drift in fresh air, without having to wear breathing apparatus.

None of the methods being employed is new or revolutionary; all are consistent with standard mining practice globally.

The language around re-entry tends to invite the spectre of brave men dashing up the 2.3km tunnel. That is not how it will be.

They will approach the task in small reaches – perhaps a few metres at a time – checking the condition of the roof and sides, and with atmospheric conditions under constant watch (using monitoring equipment that Pike never bothered to install back in the day when it was attempting to mine coal). Once each stretch is verified as safe, the forensic examiners will follow and do their work, each chaperoned by a trained miner.

It’s not yet decided whether police staff will enter the drift, or if miners will be trained to do the forensic search while police remain on the surface. If police do enter, the searchers will be drawn from the police specialist search group (they’re the folk we see on TV kitted out in white overalls searching crime scenes), but their participation in this operation will be entirely voluntary, Detective Superintendent Peter Read told me in a recent interview.

They will search for any biological remains and personal items belonging to the men. There is the possibility that in the upper-most area of the drift they will find a vehicle full of workers who may have started to exit the mine in time to knock off at 4pm on the afternoon of the explosion. We know that the vehicle – called a drift-runner – had gone in to collect them. The mine blew up at 3.45pm.

And they will search for forensic evidence that will assist in piecing together an explanation for why the mine exploded when it did. We know that the preconditions for disaster had been there for weeks: methane levels were frequently spiking into the explosive range; fixed methane monitors didn’t work; gas spikes were routinely ignored; incident reports from concerned workers went into the bin.

So we know that Pike River Mine had been, for weeks, an accident waiting to happen. But we don’t know why it blew at 3.45 pm on Friday November 19, 2010. We don’t know what the final spark was.

The police team now working on the Pike file are preparing for an exhaustive search of the drift, and in particular the area known as Pit Bottom in Stone, where electrical equipment and amenities were housed. It is a small labyrinth of tunnels off to the side of the main drift, and it’s where Daniel Rockhouse (one of the two survivors) was when the explosion happened.

Police have also secured the assistance of American mining experts who oversaw the re-entry of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, which exploded in April 2010 and also killed 29 men. The causes of that explosion were investigated and identified, and the bodies were recovered.

The forensic experts will be looking for evidence such as electrical arcing and burning of wires. This may help to support or eliminate the theory that electrical harmonics could have been the source of ignition – a theory explored in some detail by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike disaster. Other equipment at Pit Bottom in Stone, such as generators and variable speed drives, are likely to hold clues. Some will be brought out of the mine and analysed; some, including the electrical substation, will be too big to bring out and will have to be investigated in situ. People with expertise on each piece of equipment underground are being identified from around the world to help interpret the forensic evidence relating to each piece of kit.

As expected, the price tag on re-entry is higher than the original estimate of $23 million, with Little disclosing today the total cost is now expected to be $36 million. There will be push back against that from some in the community , who argue it is a waste of money and that the families should get over themselves and move on.

My answer to those critics is this: Twenty-nine men went to work, implicitly trusting that those who governed their workplace were doing their job. They never came home. Those who had duties failed egregiously to perform them. No-one was held accountable. A full explanation has never been furnished. Are we, as a nation, happy to simply leave it at that? Is that the country we wish to be?

That is not the New Zealand that I know and love. And I am grateful to Anna Osborne, Sonya Rockhouse and Bernie Monk for fighting so hard for justice and accountability, and thus helping New Zealand to be the country that we want it to be.

Rebecca Macfie is the author of Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and why 29 men died (Awa Press)





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