New Zealand miners declared dead after another massive explosion

By Tom Peters
24 November 2010

Twenty-nine coal miners, ranging in age from 17 to 62, have been declared dead following a second massive methane explosion at 2:37pm today deep inside the Pike River Coal mine on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Superintendent Gary Knowles, head of the rescue operation, told a press conference that the blast had been “horrific” and that “it is our belief no-one survived and everyone will have perished”.

The loss of life at Pike River is the largest number of deaths in a mining disaster in New Zealand since 1914.

Fears had been growing overnight for the survival of the miners, who were trapped underground last Friday. Family members had become increasingly angry over repeated delays in the rescue operation, and over the fact that authorities withheld from them until yesterday chilling video footage that showed the full impact of the extremely powerful initial explosion that took place at least 2.5 kilometres into the mine shaft.

The hazy CCTV security footage, captured at the entry to the coal mine, showed grey stone dust blowing out of the mine for 52 seconds. Local mayor Tony Kokshoorn said the footage indicated the miners’ chances were “not good”.

Rescuers had not been able to enter the mine because of dangerously high levels of explosive gas. The blast is likely to have been caused by a build-up of methane. Superintendent Knowles reported that gas samples taken from a bore hole, which was finally finished early this morning, were “off the limit”.

No contact had been made with the miners and there were growing concerns that even if they had not been killed by the blast, they were likely to have died later from dehydration or a lack of breathable air. Police Commissioner Howard Broad told a press conference last night that the situation was getting “bleaker by the hour, by the day”.

Yesterday, a modified army robot was sent into the mine to test air samples and record video footage of the damage caused by the explosion. However, the robot broke down when it hit a waterfall 500 metres inside the mine’s access tunnel. The robot was restarted overnight, but only reached the 1,000-metre mark before its battery ran flat. The trapped men were believed to be at least a further 1.5 kilometres into the shaft.

Pike River CEO Peter Whittall reported last night that preparations were being made to start drilling a second bore hole close to where the miners were thought to be working. Whittall told the media that a video-camera had been lowered yesterday through a slim-line shaft into a fresh air base—where miners could retreat in the event of a fire. He said the camera showed that the area had been damaged and there was no sign that anyone had been there since the explosion.

Relatives of the miners had expressed their anger and frustration to the media about the delayed rescue and lack of timely international coordination. Dean Hardcastle, an uncle of one of the miners, told TV3 yesterday: “We’re told from President Obama down that we’ve got full international support, that every piece of equipment is on standby.” Yet, Hardcastle said, the rescue coordinators had waited five days before arranging for the specialised robot to be sent from Western Australia. “Why is it not already here? And another one behind it?” Ross Harvey, the miner’s stepfather, was frustrated that drilling on a second bore hole had just started. “They could’ve sourced the [second] drill and had it on standby ... they could’ve had it drilling while the first drill was going,” he said.

Geoff Valli, brother of 62-year-old Keith Valli, the oldest miner trapped at Pike River, said it was time to send a rescue team into the mine, no matter the risks. Valli told Radio New Zealand this morning he’d had a “gutsful” of hearing the same excuses from police day after day.

Lawrie Drew, the father of missing 21-year-old miner Zen Drew, told the New Zealand Herald today that relatives were annoyed they had not been shown security camera footage of Friday’s mine blast until yesterday. “The anger is getting worse with a lot of other people. I’m not angry, I’m annoyed. The truth wasn’t told from the beginning,” Drew said.

Earlier, Drew said the families wanted confirmation about the fate of the men and felt they were being given a “PR spiel” by authorities. “We don’t want bullshit, we want answers, we’re sick of these meetings,” he told reporters, after attending the families’ twice-daily briefing with rescue coordinators yesterday.

This afternoon, as Drew left the briefing at which he was informed his son had been declared dead, he accused authorities of missing “a window of opportunity” to mount a rescue effort in the hours following the first explosion.

Reports continue to emerge suggesting that Pike River compromised workers’ health and safety in order to continue extracting the mine’s highly profitable supply of coking coal. The Westport News yesterday reported that a former mine worker believed he was made ill by methane poisoning. He had quit his job at Pike River after being sick for three weeks, experiencing dizziness, high temperature and disorientation. The paper reported: “One of his mates at the Pike mine had experienced similar symptoms and was still on sick leave after about six weeks. Other miners had also been sick, but he was unsure of their symptoms.” The ex-miner said deputies at the mine had tested methane levels, “but we never got told what the levels were”.

Several experts have reported that the amount of methane in the Pike River mine was dangerously high due to its location on the Hawera fault line, which acts as a conduit for the gas. Constant ventilation is needed to prevent methane from building up to explosive levels, and there have been reports that Pike River’s ventilation system had experienced faults in the past.

Pike River chairman John Dow told Radio New Zealand yesterday that in the event of a power outage shutting down the ventilators, miners “have standard practices for withdrawing to a fresh air base until the power is restored”. If power was out for a protracted period, he said, the mine was evacuated. These comments suggest that the mine had no back-up power supply. Davitt McAteer, former head of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, told Radio New Zealand that in order to prevent the build-up of methane, mine ventilation must be connected to more than one power source. “If you have a power failure you need to have a second source of energy to keep the ventilation system moving,” McAteer said.

Dow and Pike River CEO Whittall have repeatedly denied criticisms of the company’s safety record. The Greymouth Star yesterday quoted Whittall denouncing “highly-paid journalists” and “so-called experts” who claimed the mine was unsafe. He asserted that “gas is a hazard of coal mining,” suggesting that the disaster had nothing to do with the company’s practices.

Members of New Zealand’s political and media establishment continue to vigorously defend the company. Gerry Brownlee, energy minister in the conservative National Party government, told TVNZ’s “Close Up” program yesterday that Whittall was doing an “admirable” job of communicating with miners’ families about the disaster. “He’s chief executive, but he understands the industry like no other chief executive probably does,” he claimed. “Close Up” presenter Mark Sainsbury asserted that Whittall “has earned the respect of all around him for his calm, measured handling of what is almost an impossible situation”.

In a speech to parliament, the opposition Labour Party leader Phil Goff praised Whittall for “carrying an incredible responsibility and strain.”

Both the Labour and National parties have played a key role in collaborating with mining companies to undermine safety standards. In 1992, a National government dropped the requirement for mines to have worker-elected safety check inspectors, and Labour failed to reintroduce the requirement during its nine years in office from 1999 to 2008. As a result, workers on mine sites have had no independent representative through whom they can raise safety concerns.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, which has 71 members employed at Pike River, also continues to defend the company. The union has claimed that it was not aware of any health or safety issues at the mine.

Police detectives and Department of Labour officials have arrived in the West Coast town of Greymouth to investigate whether failings by Pike River Coal could lead to prosecutions. While the government and Labour have called for an official inquiry into the disaster, their comments make clear that they have no intention of holding corporate leaders responsible for any safety infringements that contributed to the deaths of 29 men.

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