Pike River – the final cover-up?

Miners' families protest during Key's last visit to the Coast, August 2014: Photo: RNZ / Patrick Phelps
Miners’ families protest during Key’s last visit to the Coast, August 2014: Photo: RNZ / Patrick Phelps

by Don Franks

Solid Energy will be hoping they’ve finally prevented anyone investigating their crime scene.

They confirmed yesterday they won’t allow Pike River mine re-entry to recover the bodies of the 29 workers killed in November 2010.  They claim risks are too high, hypocritically saying: “any further loss of life in this mine is unacceptable and any possibility of other families having to go through what the Pike families have suffered is not something our board can support.”

Prime Minister John Key immediately backed up Solid Energy, saying they “did everything they possibly could” to recover the bodies of miners killed in the gas explosion at the mine.  In a press conference in Greymouth yesterday morning, Key said Solid Energy went through “an exceptionally rigorous process” before deciding against re-entering the mine.

Families of the 29 miners had predicted the decision and hit back at the mine owner’s decision with evidence from British experts showing re-entry was technically feasible and could be achieved within International Safety Standards.  Moreover, last September, WorkSafe NZ documents released under the Official Information Act also indicated that it had been safe to enter the mine for at least the past year.

The miners’ families also asked for a legal opinion about whether further criminal prosecutions could take place.

Key said officials would revisit this, but it would be “immensely challenging” because an extensive amount of work had already been done on criminal prosecutions.

Key is right about the “extensive work” – but it was work to ensure prosecution avoidance.

National’s sordid backroom deal

A letter sent in October 2013 from Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall’s lawyer to the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment,  which has taken over the functions of the old Department of Labour, shows that the ministry’s decision to drop 12 health and safety charges against Whittall was the result of a back room deal with the company. Whittall was the only individual charged over the November 2010 mine explosion that killed the 29 men.

The letter proposed that the former company directors would pay $3.41 million to the miners’ families if the ministry agreed to “not proceed with the charges laid against Mr Whittall.”

Which came to pass. On December 12, Whittall was acquitted and the so-called “voluntary” payment was announced.

Several family members denounced the payment as “blood money.” Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton died at Pike River mine, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “New Zealand’s justice system is an absolute joke. To find out today that $3.4 million to pay compensation to families was a condition that everything is dropped and Peter Whittall walks away scot-free is disgusting.”

That acquittal meant that no one has been held accountable for the disaster, despite a Royal Commission finding in 2012 that the mine owners ignored “numerous warnings of a potential catastrophe” and its board was “distracted” by “financial and production pressures.”  In July 2010, the company was found guilty of health and safety violations and ordered to pay $3.41 million in reparations—but at the time Pike River’s former directors refused to make the payment on the grounds that the company was bankrupt.

Labour Party and union also fail miners.

Not only the mine owners have workers’ blood on their hands.

No-one in the current National Party government or the 1999-2008 Labour government has been held responsible for the decades of cuts to safety practices that allowed Pike River Coal to cut corners on safety. Beginning in the 1990s, the Department of Labour’s specialist Mines Inspectorate was progressively dismantled – despite warnings from experts that this would lead to a disaster. The Royal Commission found that the department was under-resourced and “assumed Pike was complying with the law, even though there was ample evidence to the contrary.”

The miners’ union, the EPMU, failed the workers by not demanding and policing basic safety on the site.

Straight after the disaster, EPMU leader Andrew Little told the Herald that the company had an “active health and safety committee” and there was “nothing unusual about Pike River. . . that we’ve been particularly concerned about.” The EPMU, which had 71 fees-paying members at Pike River, stood meekly back after the disaster and allowed the police to determine the decisions which were made.

On its website last month the union wrote: Working underground got a lot safer this week with the appointment of Industry Health and Safety Representative (IHSR) Stephen Woods.”

Without apology, EPMU assistant national secretary Ged O’Connell reported: “This is the first time in 22 years that miners will have a worker-elected check inspector on the job.”

The position is actually a legislatively-created role. IHSRs are government-empowered to inspect mines and stop work if they believe there is a risk of serious harm to workers on the job.

There was a day, not so long ago, when work stoppage over safety was an automatic union reaction. It has to be asked, do today’s unions retain any serious relevance?

Private property

In response to the most recent development, anarchist activist Valerie Morse commented: “If 29 people were shot on the street, we would consider it a massacre of unimaginable proportions. Yet, we excuse the management of Pike River Mine and declare it an ‘accident’. It was not an accident – it was a deliberate act of the company director to willfully ignore safety measures in favour of greater profits that would have meant these people were still alive.”

The company director’s act could be committed and excused because the mine was private property.

Today, under capitalism, the rights of private property trump workers’ health, safety and lives.

For as long as capitalism is socially acceptable, untimely death will be the workers’ shadow.

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