Lax safety standards led to New Zealand coal mine disaster - report

WELLINGTON Mon Nov 5, 2012 6:03am GMT

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WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand's worst mining disaster in nearly a century that killed 29 people in 2010 happened because the operator neglected safety and put workers at risk, a commission said on Monday. The labour minister resigned in response to the findings.

In a scathing report on the blast at the Pike River Coal Mine, a Royal Commission said the government should not have let the mine operate until the risks had been assessed.

"In the drive towards coal production the directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety and exposed the company's workers to unacceptable risks," the commission said.

The commission said the mine on the rugged west coast of New Zealand's South Island ignored numerous warnings of dangerously high methane levels. Its ventilation and drainage systems were not up to the job.

The explosion was triggered by methane, which is found naturally in coal. Methane becomes explosive when it makes up 5 percent to 15 percent of the volume of air.

"Its health and safety systems were inadequate. The mine was riddled with deficiencies," Prime Minister John Key told reporters. "It's possible that it could have been preventable."

Kay said the government "takes its share of the responsibility" and that's why Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson had resigned.

In announcing her resignation, Wilkinson said the disaster, the worst in New Zealand since 1914, had happened "on her watch".

The commission said the mine had been struggling financially and was borrowing to keep operations afloat after it had overestimated coal output. It had cut corners on safety.

BLUNDERS

The Department of Labour assumed that mine was complying with the law despite evidence to the contrary, the commission said.

"The department should have prohibited Pike from operating the mine until its health and safety systems were adequate."

The commission said some equipment at the mine was not flame proof and smoking material and battery-powered devices had been present in the mine despite being prohibited.

The bodies of the dead miners were never recovered because of the danger of more explosions. They were entombed in the mine when it was sealed up.

"They know how serious and how many blunders have been made, and they want to make amends," said Bernie Monk, a spokesman for some of the victims' families.

The mine company collapsed after the disaster and the mine has been bought by the state-owned Solid Energy company which has said it will recover the victims' remains if possible.

There are believed to be about 18 million tonnes of high-quality coking coal in the mine, with a market value of billions of dollars.

Last month, an Australian company which operated a drill rig at the mine was fined NZ$46,800 ($38,677) for breaches of health and safety rules, although there was no suggestion its lapses contributed to the blast.

The mine's former chief executive has entered pleaded not guilty to charges of negligence.

($1=NZ$1.21)

(Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu and Gyles Beckford; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel)

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