Solid Energy and Worksafe at odds over mine re-entry

Solid Energy and Worksafe are at loggerheads over whether Mines Rescue will be allowed to walk the 2.4km up the Pike River Mine entry tunnel, with only one way in and out.

The Greymouth Star first reported on August 8 that the re-entry was now in doubt, even though $4 million had been spent over the past year prepping the explosion-damaged mine.

Documents released under the Official Information Act today confirm that Worksafe is comfortable with the re-entry process, but Solid Energy's own legal advice has put it in doubt. State-owned Solid Energy bought the mine after the November 2010 explosion that killed 29 men, who still lie under the mountain.

The new board of the SOE is struggling with the requirement for a second escapeway -- ironically, one of the main criticisms of the Pike River disaster -- because there is only one way in and out.

In the document dump today, chief mines inspector Tony Forster said in October 2013 the current re-entry plan was "safe and technically feasible".

Last month he told Solid Energy chief executive Dan Clifford he was pleased "Solid Energy has taken advice on the impact of the proposed health and safety legislation and is now in agreement with Worksafe that there is no legal impediment without a second egress".

Mr Forster said the re-entry would involve rescuers walking up a rock tunnel -- not a coalmining operation -- therefore there was no requirement for a second egress under current and proposed health and safety legislation.

But Mr Clifford replied a few days later that "I did not say that Solid Energy is 'now in agreement' with Worksafe in respect to legal impediments".

Pike River families lawyer Nicholas Davidson QC told Radio New Zealand today he would like to know more about Solid Energy's legal advice on the re-entry.

"It's a matter of huge importance ...I don't know what they've been told," Mr Davidson said.

Families had reached a point of "absolute frustration".

Worksafe said in a statement this morning that any decision on whether to enter the mine drift (main entry tunnel) was up to Solid Energy.

"Subsequent evaluations by Solid Energy as part of the company's risk assessment process have resulted in some further concerns about risk levels and other matters."

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor said the plan to re-enter the drift had been approved last year.

"By all accounts ... it was feasible and could be conducted safely. Of course, there will always be risks (but) that applies to someone driving down the road," Mr O'Connor said.

Solid Energy board chairwoman Pip Dunphy said the company was now in the stage of final oversight review by the management team and independent experts.

"(We) are awaiting some of these last evaluations and individual experts' opinions."

The company understood the time that was taking was frustrating for the family members, and it was trying to complete the work as quickly as it could.

It was Solid Energy's responsibility to make the decision, and it was obliged to consult with Worksafe "if and when the company considers it has a safe and credible plan to re-enter the drift".

By Laura Mills of the Greymouth Star

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