Pike River families astonished at company's stance

Prime Minister John Key today ruled out taxpayers stumping up for lawyers for Pike River Coal, and families of the 29 men killed in last year's mine explosion near Greymouth said they were "astonished" the company was saying it didn't have the money to fully participate in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy.

The commission of inquiry, which held a preliminary hearing in Greymouth yesterday, will try to find out what happened at the mine and how to prevent future mining tragedies.

The commission will hold 15 weeks of substantive hearings between May 6 and November 4.

A lawyer for the receivers of the Pike River Coal company told the commission yesterday that while it was committed to helping, it was unlikely to be able to engage "in any sustained or substantial way" unless funding was provided.

The company was put into receivership in December 2010.

The company's receivers approached the Government for funding but that was ruled out by Mr Key today, who rejected the company's argument it could not pay for legal representation.

"From our analysis they had $10.9 million before they went into receivership, they've spent $5 or $6 million, so we think they've got $4-$5 million left, so if they want to fund representation they can," he told reporters.

"It's not an adversarial court, it's an inquiry process, and our view is that the company has the resources to actually pay its own legal bills if it wants to."

Mr Key doubted the Government would change its mind.

A statement released by lawyers for the Pike River families said the implication was that without funding, crucial evidence of the processes by which the mine was consented, permitted and developed up to the November 19 blast would be much more difficult to place before the commission.

The families were astonished at this stance and believed the company and its stakeholders should recognise an obligation to help, regardless of funding and that financial support should not be the reason for not helping in the fullest way.

The families also expected the receivers would want answers to the cause of the explosion before the mine was sold.

In the statement, the families said Department of Labour investigations must be secondary to the commission's inquiry and not be allowed to slow that process.

"While the investigation continues the department will not want to reveal its position derived from interviews. Secondly, witnesses who may be suspects will have to be cautioned as to their rights against self-incrimination, and may exercise those rights.

"These factors will have an influence and may result in lengthy delay in getting crucial evidence before the commission," lawyers said.

The families were also waiting for a clear indication of re-entering the mine.

"They look most closely at Mines Rescue Trust for a clear indication, and want Mines Rescue to come forward and articulate their position, and provide the families and the public with a clear answer."

After yesterday's hearing, Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn told NZPA the company's stance was disappointing.

"I felt that they should have been transparent and open and available to actually give all the evidence that was required...

"To actually get up there and say 'well, we haven't got any money, what are you going to do about it?' is not a good look for them," he said.

The commission's hearings will be held over four phases, the first of which will examine New Zealand's regulatory environment and the geography, approval and development of the mine.

The second phase will explore the search and rescue operation, and the cause of the deaths, the third phase the cause of the explosions and Pike River Coal's practices, while the last will focus on policies governing mining.

The commission would have the power to obtain relevant documents or compel witnesses to give evidence if necessary.



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