Pike River evidence as explosive as mine

Hindsight has the potential to make fools out of the supremely confident while turning silent naysayers into sages. There are few heroes to emerge out of the tragic saga of Pike River and the final report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry will tell the whole story, but the evidence being aired in Greymouth is proving as explosive as the methane levels that led to the disastrous blast at the mine in November last year.

Incrementally, the narrative in the revelations of a succession of witnesses to the commission is one of overlapping braids of neglect, inexperience, incoherent safety practices and the privileging of production quotas over underground safety. As an instruction manual on how not to operate an underground coal mine, it is shaping up as a shocker.

It has become fashionable in our post-industrial age to knock the very idea of organised labour. Almost invariably it is portrayed as a greedy and unthinking beast interested only in lining its members' pockets and sabotaging the best interests of the entire enterprise - as construed by the ownership or, on its behalf, the management.

But much of the movement of organised labour - call it unionism, if you will - in the first instance arose out of protecting the interests of its members, and while remuneration was always a part of this, perhaps the higher priority was the health and safety of the workforce.

Again, while not wishing to pre-empt the report of the commission, it seems to me that what was missing, and what might have turned the parade of admonishing battlers into heroic lifesavers, were the formal structures, and offices, that in days gone by had as their primary concern precisely that wellbeing. They might have existed at Pike, but in the post-industrial age their mana and pull was much reduced; so, too, the reach of a mines safety inspectorate, watered down in size, scope and power over the years.

Time was when the merest whiff of bad odour could shut down the process, whatever that process happened to be. And, yes, of course it was abused from time to time. But take a look at some of the testimony concerning Pike River and tell me that, often times, the boot is on the other foot.

As with most such incidents and tragedies, there is a backstory to this one. And it seems to begin with the very underpinnings of the Pike project: the notion that the Brunner coal seam, out of which vast quantities of coking coal could be extracted, was highly unlikely to produce the dangerous levels of methane that might have been expected of comparable operations.

Evidently, some locals thought differently. Quite possibly some held their counsel because, after all, an enduring mining operation at Pike River meant jobs in an area where employment possibilities were few and far between.

Certainly, when he appeared at the inquiry a week or two ago, Japanese mining consultant Masaoki Nishioka went so far as to suggest it was quite possibly one of the gassiest mines in the world. Much of his testimony and the rebutting cross-examination centred on to what extent he relayed his concerns to mine management. He insists he did and when his three-month contract was up, he left, apparently fearing there would ultimately be an explosion at the mine.

He was not the only one. This week, experienced English coalminer Albert Houlden - he had worked in mines for 37 years - claims he, too, left the mine because he feared there would be an explosion. His testimony echoes that of others: the miners were often inexperienced; other contractors working underground had little training and even less supervision; ventilation was poor; the mine was gassy.

After about nine months working at the mine he resigned and took up the offer of a job in Papua New Guinea.

"There was one day when I came home and said to my wife, 'I'm taking that job I've been offered because that mine [Pike] is going to go'."

There appear to have been other factors at work - including the commercial pressures of meeting production quotas.

In July 2010, Pike management, desperate to up the mine's game, reportedly offered workers a $10,000 bonus if a new hydraulic system was functioning within a couple of months, and if certain coal production quotas were met.

That is one sweet cherry of a bonus, and it would take a strong individual to turn it down. Which is precisely where, once upon a time, the dastardly union rep would have stepped in.

 - Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times. In the late 1970s he spent several months on an Australian mining operation.


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