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Vol. 76/No. 45      December 10, 2012

Report: Bosses at fault in deaths
of 29 New Zealand miners in 2010

AUCKLAND, New Zealand—The report of the official Royal Commission into the Pike River Tragedy “puts the nail in the coffin” of any idea that the disaster was an accident, Bernie Monk told the Militant Nov. 8. Monk’s son Michael was one of 29 miners killed Nov. 19, 2010, in a methane gas explosion at the mine, located 30 miles northeast of Greymouth on the west coast of the South Island.

Monk is a spokesperson for a number of families of the dead men, who ranged in ages from 17 to 62. Family members have played a leading part in forcing truth about the disaster into the open.

The three-person royal commission was established by the government in December 2010. The commission’s report—which incorporates testimony of workers, union representatives, mine managers and mining experts—shows how Pike River Coal bosses rode roughshod over workers’ safety in pursuit of profits, and how Labour Department officials looked the other way.

The Pike River mine was dug into the Paparoa ranges to exploit seams of high quality coking coal, which capitalist owners anticipated would fetch premium prices from steel manufacturers in Asia.

According to the report, the mine was developed with “insufficient geological information.” Only one access road was built. An alternative exit, required by law, turned out to involve a 360 feet ladder climb.

The main ventilation fan was placed inside the mine—described in the report as highly unusual and risky for a mine with high levels of methane gas.

The company’s forecast production of more than 1 million tons of coal by 2008 “proved illusory,” says the commission. “Ventilation and methane drainage systems could not cope.” When hydro mining began in September 2010, the company prodded workers with a $13,000 (US$10,700) production bonus.

On occasion workers bypassed “safety devices on mining machinery so work could continue regardless of the presence of methane.”

Months of warnings of excess methane by workers and underground management personnel were ignored. In the 48 hours before the explosion, “there were 21 reports of methane levels reaching explosive volumes, and 27 reports of lesser, but potentially dangerous volumes,” says the commission.

The report speculates that a roof fall may have expelled methane gas into the mine’s roadways, where it mixed with oxygen and became explosive.

Legislation and other changes in the 1990s abolished not only the government mines inspectorate, but also union-elected inspectors. Initiated by a National Party government, the changes were maintained under Labour Party administrations.

The commission proposes setting up a new government work safety agency and endorses the demand of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union for the reinstatement of union-appointed inspectors. These would have the power to stop operations “if workers are in immediate danger.”

“The reintroduction of check inspectors … should be undertaken immediately,” Valma McGowan said in a Nov. 6 email from Greymouth. McGowan’s husband Robert was killed in the Black Reef mine in 2006.

The union has worked with families to fly in three mining experts from the United Kingdom to look at the feasibility of entering the sealed mine. This would help establish the cause of the disaster, said Monk. Victims’ families are campaigning for the mine owners to recover the 29 bodies.
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