by Philip Ferguson

November 19 and 24 mark the second anniversary of the explosions at Pike River mine on the West Coast which left 16 miners and 13 contractors dead.  A rescue crew sent in had to be withdrawn as the second explosion occurred, sending explosive gases, soot and smoke into a shaft they were working in.

Two further explosions took place, on November 26 and 28.  The latter explosion set coal in the mine on fire, making further attempts to recover the bodies hazardous.

The Pike River disaster was the worst mining tragedy since 1914, when 43 miners died in Huntly.  Since 1967, 51 lives have been lost in NZ mines.  Pike River was also an avoidable tragedy, one which points up the lack of attention to safety in the era of deregulation.

Role of media

In the aftermath of the explosions and deaths, however, the mainstream media wasn’t interested in ‘awkward’ questions for the company.  Instead they treated Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall as some kind of hero.  He was revoltingly fawned over by liberal TV presenter John Campbell and others, NZ journalists even clapping him after his PR people led off the applause at the end of the press conference at which he announced there was no hope of any survivors!

While the New Zealand media, liberal and conservative alike, revealed their vacuous and sycophantic attitude to the wealthy and powerful, an Australian journalist who tried to do his job, asking serious questions, was treated as some kind of rude interloper.

Today, much has changed.  Whittall has long since fallen from grace and is facing a set of charges brought by the now-defunct Labour Department in relation to mine safety.

Poor safety

In 1992, as part of the ‘more market’ reforms, the specialised team of six mine inspectors was disbanded in favour of self-regulation by mining companies themselves.  The notion of self-regulation remained in place under the 1999-2008 Labour government.  All this meant was that, in pursuit of maximising profits, the companies involved in mining cut corners on safety.  In the case of Pike River, there is now a plethora of evidence about poor safety and it’s not hard to work out why.

In mid-June 2011 an experienced Australian miner who had worked at Pike River told New Zealand television that the mine was a horror story in relation to safety.  He’d left the mine because of this.  A former supervisor who had left just a few months before the explosions, Peter Sattler, told Sunday, “There were quite a few things I saw there that sort of shocked me.”

Ean Higgins, writing in the June 27, 2011 Australian, noted that Australian mine inspectors had pointed out that “Pike River did not have stocks of food or water in the mine and, most important, compressed air breathing apparatus which, on top of ‘self-rescuers’ which generate oxygen for a few minutes, give survivors more time to get out of a mine after an explosion, or to be rescued.”  Nor did the mine have  “tube bundling” which ‘sniffs’ the atmosphere, creating continuous data on the make-up of gases.

When Whittall had been asked just after the tragedy why there was no compressed breathing apparatus at Pike River, he’d claimed the mine wasn’t big enough to warrant it!  He’d said the same about tube bundling.  But as mining expert Dave Feickert said at the time, “I would have thought in that mine you would start off with a tube-bundle system.”

When the two survivors had reached the fresh air base, which was still 1500 metres from the exit, they found there was no working phone or breathing gear or air supply!

On the day of the first explosion, Professor Dave Petley of Durham University, a specialist in landslides who also works with mining companies, wrote on his blog, “The good news about such a new mine is that, unlike the San Jose mine in Chile, it will have been constructed  with two exit routes for the miners”.  Sadly he was wrong – one of the most blatant examples of disregard for safety was that there was only one way in and out of the mine.  By contrast, in Australia, where deregulation never went as far as here, it is illegal to build mines with only one entry/exit.  In fact, the same month as the Pike River disaster a sizeable chunk of roof collapsed in an Australian mine, Dendrobium, but no-one was injured or trapped, let alone killed, because they had another way out.  Indeed,

Methane problem long known

After the explosions in November 2010, massively high levels of methane were detected (95%).  One of the mine safety experts testifying before the Royal Commission, David Reece, has said that the first explosion was most likely caused by a roof cave-in which would have released a large amount of methane gas.  He also noted that the company accepted frequently explosive levels of methane.  It should be added that three years before the explosions the potential danger of methane was known.  An article in the February 25 NZ Herald reported, for instance, “Miners have hit more water than expected and potentially explosive methane gas has also been found as the tunnel nears the Hawera fault. . .”

The article continued, “Whittall is unperturbed by gas levels which he says fall well below thresholds.”  Whittall told reporter Grant Bradley that vertical ventilation shafts would be bored down to the pit bottom and fans would pump air in.

Even the response by management on site on November 19, 2010 seems to have been woeful.  It took 51 minutes for them to contact emergency services, for instance.

Particular opprobrium now also attaches to Whittall because he wasn’t just the CEO of Pike River but played the key role in the creation of the mine.  For instance, the company’s own website listed Whittall as “responsible for all operational aspects of the business including mine design and development, and the essential areas of safety and environment.”  The same document – the company’s Activities Report for the quarter ended September 2010, claimed “Pike River’s recently introduced hazard identification and management system continues to work well.”

So well, apparently, that two months later, 29 of their employees would be dead.

Whittall now faces four charges for responsibility as an employer and  four as a principal for being part of the failures of Pike River Coal and four charges of failing to take all steps practicable to ensure no other person was harmed.  The company itself faces four charges for failing to ensure the safety of employees, five in relation similar negligence in relation to those it contracted work out to and their employees and one of failing to ensure their actions didn’t result in harm to anyone else.

As odious as Whittall might be, he’s far from the only culprit.

Kathleen Callaghan, one of the expert witnesses testifying in the Royal Commission inquiry into the disaster, stated last November, “the evidence I have seen indicates that Pike River mine was ‘an accident waiting to happen’, in the sense that an accident was probable.”  She noted that “well-established and well-known holes” existed in the Labour Department’s own management systems.

These holes didn’t just appear spontaneously.  They were created by the Labour Party and the National Party whose deregulatory regimes undermined health and safety in this dangerous industry.

Moreover, the Labour Department had sent a notice to Pike River Coal only 25 days before the fatal explosion.  The Department was concerned about the stability of the roof.   While, as noted earlier in this article, a roof collapse may well unleashed the gas that exploded, and despite having received other warnings about poor safety conditions a Pike River, the Labour Department chose not to halt the mine’s operation for a proper safety audit.

After the explosions, prime minister John Key went to the Coast and assured the families of the Pike River men that the government would spare no expense to retrieve the bodies.  Today, however, this looks more like a set of photo ops for the smug creep.

Profit rules

Back on July 22, 2011, Tim Watkin of Pundit noted, “The terrible impression left last year and reinforced this week is of a mine under financial pressure that was cutting corners.”  He also noted that “There’s no reason for people to die underground these days” as “miners know how to mine safely. . . The only reason that people die is when things are not done properly.”

Technically, of course, he’s right.   But neither mining nor any other industry is simply about the product.  In a capitalist society, the product is simply a means to making and maximising profits.  And the same is true of workers in the capitalist scheme of things.  The human cost is not part of capitalist accounting and the free operations of the market.

In 2007, a glowing picture of the company’s future was presented  by then-CEO Gordon Ward.  The Pike River mine was expected to generate $2.3 billion in export earnings in its lifetime.

However, the mine was in trouble pretty much from the start in 2007, “plagued with delays and cost-overruns” as a Businesswire article put it in August 2010.

By  June 2010, Pike River Coal had invested almost $290 million in developing the mine but recorded operating losses of $13 million in the year to June 2009 and a further $39 million in the year to June 2010.  In August 2010 shares in the company were trading at 96 cents, and the company was continuing to burn up cash.  When it’s entire reason for existing is to make and maximise profit, it’s unlikely, to put it mildly, that a capitalist concern operating with those losses was going to invest in maximising the safety of its workers.  Indeed, as Pieter Van Rooyen, the company’s former technical services manager, told the Royal Commission, the company bosses made clear to him “the need to produce coal as soon as possible” and there was “no way that the company would delay coal production”; the decision to press ahead with hydro-mining despite high methane levels and without an alternative exit was, Van Rooyen said, was made to ensure “cashflow”.

Twenty-nine workers are dead and dozens of families have been left devastated by the loss of their loved ones, because company “cashflow” is more important than workers lives.  The families have since been let down and lied to by politicians and company hacks with, for far too long, the willing connivance of most of the New Zealand mainstream media.

And they haven’t fared much better at the hands of their union, the EPMU.

Where to from here?

In his maiden speech in parliament in February this year, former EPMU boss Andrew Little rightly stated, “If ever there is anything that shows what happens after years of a culture of management dominance, deregulation, poor enforcement and bare legal compliance, then it is the tragedy at Pike River.”  But Little and the EPMU did bugger all to fight this culture.  In fact, they have a long record of collaboration with the bosses and the Labour Party at the expense of workers’ rights – and, at Pike River, at the expense of workers’ lives.  Now the long-time EPMU leader is an MP for the very party that pioneered the market reforms and “culture of management dominance and deregulation”.

Where to from here?  Firstly, we need to be angry, bloody angry, that this tragedy has happened and at the way the families have been treated by the government.  Secondly, the demand of the families for the retrieval of the bodies of their loved ones needs to be repeated.  The reintroduction of mine inspectors and much stronger safety regulations would be good too.  However, the only way to ensure that company cashflow doesn’t come before workers’ safety and that no more workers die in tragedies like Pike River, and no more families are left devastated, is to create a new society, one organised around human need rather than private profit.

Further reading: How capitalism works and, ultimately, doesn’t work