Deregulating for Disaster | The Jackal

14 Jul 2011

Deregulating for Disaster

Former chief inspector of coal mines Robin Hughes, with over 40 years of coal mining experience gave evidence yesterday at the Royal Commission of Inquiry concerning the Pike River mine disaster.

He said mine safety changes made by the National Government in the 1990's was the underlying cause for the disaster that occurred 19 November 2010 and claimed 29 lives.

Health and safety should be paramount at any modern mine. The fact that it was not and this led to an increased likelihood of danger, is totally unacceptable. Not only did National repeal the Coal Mining Act and regulations in 1993, they dismantled the inspectorate further in 1998 and then halted a review of mine safety in 2009.

Even after Damien O’Connor in May 2010 raised mine safety issues with Kate Wilkinson, National did not reopen the review on mine safety. Although the Minister of Labour is ultimately responsible for the mismanagement, the buck in my opinion stops with Gerry Brownlee.

On June 30th 2009 Brownlee made a speech at the Inaugural Coal Seam Gas Industry Briefing in which he stated:
Also on the West Coast, Pike River Coal is carrying out exploration work on the coal seam gas potential at its West Coast mine, and has indicated it could potentially look at establishing small-scale on-site electricity generation. 
Coal Seam Gas refers to methane adsorbed into the solid matrix of the coal. It is often called 'sweet gas' because of its lack of hydrogen sulfide. The presence of CSG is well known because it's a dangerous occurrence in underground coal mining, where it presents a serious safety risk.

Not once in the entire speech did Gerry Brownlee mention safety. The fact that CSG is the most likely combustible material in the explosion, and it is inherently dangerous, doesn't even register. The Minster of Energy and Resources is too busy promoting the mining industry to give a second thought to the dangers surrounding CSG.

At the time the disaster occurred, there was only one inspector for the entire South Island. Deregulation therefore appears to be instrumental in the Pike River mine disaster. Mining requires competent and well equipped inspectors, that should not be subject to meddling bureaucrats. The fact that the 29 minors might not have died if proper safety management was in place, and it was purposefully removed by the Government, makes National culpable for those deaths.

A check inspector is an elected, experienced, qualified and trained miner who can immediately order the withdrawal of workers from a mine or part of the mine believed to be dangerous to life or injurious to health (as determined by the inspector), or order immediate discontinuance of any dangerous practice, or order evacuation of the mine in emergency situations.

National's obsession with cutting "red tape" and budget restrictions has clearly led to the Pike River mining disaster. I would surmise that there will eventually be a resignation concerning National's culpability in the matter. My money's on Kate Wilkinson, although Gerry Brownlee seems equally responsible.

Why is National waiting until the Royal Commission has finished its work? The Government should move immediately to increase mining safety. It would also be beneficial to see a respectful resignation before the issue is forced.