Any survivors of the first explosion that tore through the
Pike River underground coalmine, killing 29 workers on
November 19, 2010, would have been stumbling around in the
dark, a hearing in the Greymouth District Court has been
Judge Jane Farish is hearing, by formal proof, evidence that
the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (formerly
the Labour Department) has compiled against the Pike River
The ministry has laid nine charges against the company,
alleging that it could have taken numerous practicable steps
to avoid the explosion, the most significant being that it
should have placed the main ventilation fan outside the mine.
Ministry health and safety officer Jane Birdsall said Pike
River had failed on many fronts but in particular the lack of
proper ventilation and methane gas control. She also noted
that the rescue chamber and smoke lines, or lifelines, were
The smoke lines that hang from the ceiling are supposed to
guide workers, in blackout conditions, to the rescue chamber.
Inside Pike mine they were non-existent in some places and
damaged in others, tangled with other fittings or lying on
These faults had been brought to management's attention but
not rectified. Pike River had also ignored its own safety
recommendations regarding the main fan.
Ms Birdsall said the decision to place the fan underground
was ''rare, if not unique to Pike''.
However, as risk assessment controls the company was meant to
place the fan in an area of stone so there was no possibility
of it sparking a coal gas explosion. In addition, ''explosion
paths'' were to be created around it to divert pressure from
the fan and enable it to continue to operate at times of
Instead, the fan was sited further into the mine in the coal
seam and the explosion paths had not been created, leaving it
unprotected in the path of the main explosion.
The only escape route available for the miners, up the
ventilation shaft, involved an initial 55m vertical climb
which most, if not all, would have been incapable of at the
best of times.
The only underground fresh air base, 1km away from the
furthest workings, relied only on a piece of brattice to
protect it from gases.
Some underground machinery that should have been fitted with
gas detectors was not, the mine did not have a proper methane
drainage method, and recommendations that this be rectified
had also been ignored, Ms Birdsall said.
At the end of the evidence, Judge Farish reserved her
decision to April 18.
Last August, Judge Farish presided over the prosecution of
Pike River contractor VLI, a subsidiary of Sydney-based
Valley Longwall International, which had admitted three
charges; each carrying a maximum fine of $250,000. Those
charges related to its failure to take all practicable steps
to protect its employees Josh Ufer, 25, Ben Rockhouse, 21,
and Joseph Dunbar, 17.
At the time she was criticised for fining the company just
$46,000. The judge entered convictions on two counts and
imposed the $46,000 fine on the other after the Crown
indicated it was not expecting a financial penalty on all
The decision drew sharp criticism from the miners' union and
the victims' families, who considered the fine lenient.
- By Tui Bromley of the Greymouth Star