NZ A “Few Bricks Short Of A Wall” – Pike River Mine Rescue

Today’s editorial in NZResources.com, written by Ross Louthean, has expressed astonishment at the police being in charge at Pike River Coal and “making it known what could and could not happen.”

In a report headed “Mine rescue must not remain with Mr Plod” Louthean said that, in the view of his Australian mining colleagues, this may have hindered life saving at the Pike River Coal mine:

Before flying to New Zealand last week I witnessed television coverage as the methane blast at Pike River evolved and was astounded by a particular point – the police being in charge and making it known what could and could not happen. Discussing this with Australian mining colleagues, their view was stronger, suggesting it may hinder saving lives. Where was the Mines Department, trained search-rescue teams and the Inspector of Mines?

A mines rescue team was on the spot and others were arriving as expediently as possible and, I am told, there were mines inspectors or an inspector on the South Island. But these people would have been bound by decisions of a bureaucracy far away – in Wellington.

He went to to say that he never again wanted to see a disaster on the magnitude of Pike River mine’s being controlled by the police and not those trained and skilled in mine rescue, and that

“The role local police played with the Greymouth community was highly commendable and worthy of praise, but the practice of going back to Wellington for vetting and approval for a critical mine rescue shows New Zealand is a few bricks short of a wall in terms of saving the lives of miners or retrieving their bodies..”

A statement that is bound to add further to the grief of families, whose best hope now is that they may one day be able to bury their loved ones.

In Australia, he said, the operational decisions are made by search rescue leaders and the inspectors of mines but this had been lost in NZ through the “demolition” of a “mines department”  by governments that were disdainful or opposed to mining.

Again, we’re hearing the message that there is a widespread dissatisfaction with the abolition of New Zealand’s mines inspectorate.

The removal of site based Mine Inspectors was also of a great concern to Pike River Coal, as far back as 2008.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union also called for a system of on-site inspectors to be re-introduced after it was scrapped in the the early 1990s, saying that  it provided vital protection for mine workers.

The reasons for a). Why the inspectorate was abolished and b). Why the requests to reinstate it were ignored, must surely receive thorough and critical examination in the forthcoming inquiry. How can New Zealand run a modern, safe mining industry without proper regulation and expert guidance?

Read blogs Pike River Mine Management Raised Concerns About NZ Coal Mining Legislation, Calls for On Site Mine Inspectors and Pike River Miners “Shouldn’t Have Died

If an outcome of the Royal Commission of Inquiry is to give more power to the police search and rescue organisation in Wellington, Mr Louthean said it may well result in greater danger being put upon the life of any future imperiled miner.

He asked the reader to consider the following points, revealing how “red tape” resulted in delays and caused one drilling team to be “livid” over the wait. Speaking of the loss of the window of opportunity and repeated deferences to Wellington as “bureaucratic bumbling and a misuse of powers“.

“* The best time to rescue or recover is supposed to be immediately after a mine blast, and mines have trained teams and so do nearby mines. The methane has dispersed significantly and, with the right apparatus and gear, a team may consider it the best time to go down. They are aware of risks and may not proceed, but when a police organisation puts a halt to that and awaits orders from Wellington (my understanding, some issues took up to 10 hours and even involved legal declaration) then this is bureaucratic bumbling and a misuse of powers at its worst.

* Miners, drillers and consultants came in from all over NZ to help but instead of being able to simply proceed under the direction of the mine rescue teams they were subject to even more red tape, even involving the Department of Conservation procedures and trees. One drilling outfit was livid about the procedure when time and time alone was the issue.

Despite the well meaning issue of using procedures, there may well come out of the inquiries greater power may be vested in Wellington bureaucracies that should be listening to people skilled in mine rescues and retrievals, not dictating to them.

Unless that process is changed then lives may be lost, so the NZ mining industry and the mining union need to make compelling submissions. Resources and Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee, who cancelled all engagements to spend a harrowing week with the people of Pike River and Greymouth, will need to support the giving back of rescue powers to mining industry.” Read the full editorial HERE

Mr Louthean was not the first to question the police’s role in taking the lead in the mine rescue operation.

Australian journalist, Ean Higgins drew gasps from the press pack for asking “difficult questions” at a public briefing and earned himself the epithet of “tosspot” from Gerry Brownlee after asking why “the local country cops” were running the operation. Another reporter drew an analogy with the rescue operation at the World Trade Centre, but that wasn’t graced with a response to the point he raised.

Perhaps if more difficult questions were asked earlier on different decisions may have been made in the way the operation was being run, who knows?

Health and Safety Enforcement in NZ

This comment was left on Gordon Campbell’s blog on Scoop, the author indicates that NZ’s governmental Health and Safety  inspectorate needs to be improved:

“NZ’s distinctive ‘self regulating’ HSE regime results in one of the highest workplace death and accident rates in the developed world – not just in mining. There is virtually no official monitoring of technical or safety compliance in any of the ‘low frequency, high risk’ fields, let alone routine workplace inspections. These types of event are what produce the headline grabbing ‘disasters’, as opposed to the scandalous and little publicised ‘attrition’ seen daily in our workplaces.

DOL’s cultural commitment to laissez faire HSE and the sinking lid on its monitoring and enforcement resources mean that further ‘disasters’ are inevitable, and meanwhile the slow carnage will also continue. The silent assent of each Government and the union movement since 1992 doesn’t bode well for addressing this central issue.”

One thing’s for  sure – there are a lot of very frustrated miners, mining experts, technical crews and rescuers out there who feel very aggrieved about the way the Pike River mine incident was handled, who will forever be asking themselves what could have been done better.

The inquiry owes it to the families, and those who were so trying  desperately to rescue their men,  to give them some peace of mind and to ensure something like this never happens again.