REVIEW The Tragedy at Pike River Mine – How and Why 29 Men Died
by Rebecca Macfie
The Pike River coal mine disaster which cost the lives of 29 men in November 2010 has been extensively researched and documented with great feeling and compassion for the families involved and the wider audience which this volume will surely attract. Rebecca Macfie, while personalising the story with anecdotes from close family and friends, has mastered the challenge of explaining to the layman the complexities of underground coal mining with its three dimensional challenges, unique equipment and workplace jargon. The overlay of management, systems, operational and regulatory failures are investigated in detail with her findings reinforcing the author’s incredulity that such an event could happen in the twenty-first century when risk management is paramount in an industry which has “zero harm” as its core value. This is not a dry review of the Royal Commission into the disaster, but rather an engrossing and in-depth, personalised record drawn from a myriad of first-hand sources allowing the reader to experience the challenges of the rise and the demise of the Pike River Coal Company Ltd.
The premise of the book is that the boutique coal of the Brunner Seam in the challenging and pristine environment of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand in a time of booming coal market conditions encouraged development of the Pike River Mine by an ill-equipped and under-resourced organisation. Lack of knowledge of the geometrically complex coal seam, introduction of unique or prototype equipment, unanswered questions on product specifications, optimistic production schedules and timelines, high senior staff turnover, inexperienced operators, inadequate training and an environment of one way communication with management all played their part.
Most importantly, the ever present hazard of methane gas in the mine was not given the planning or operational prominence it deserved nor, it seems, was the dramatic impact of outbursts of gas as a result of the intense and concentrated coal extraction hydro mining system. The shortcomings in the mine access and egress traveling ways, the inherent risks in the ventilation circuit, unreliable gas monitoring instrumentation, potential ignition sources, failure to take advantage of proven technology, poor housekeeping and standards, lack of clear workforce responsibilities, non-adherence to standard policies and procedures, and inaction when obvious warning signs were apparent are all exposed. There is evidence presented that experienced operators did not stay at Pike River as they felt things would not change for the better and that there was a high potential for a serious incident. It seems that in this mine, the bitter lessons of the past, learnt at great cost on the West Coast and elsewhere, have not been heeded. Under the weight of evidence presented, it is hard to disagree with the author’s premise.
We read about the economic importance of the mine development to the West Coast, the value of high paying jobs in attracting and perhaps blinding individuals to serious issues confronting the workplace. In these times of extremely high focus on health and safety matters within the mining industry, the workforce may assume that the system will protect them. Perhaps these considerations in some way explain why so many now obvious red flags were ignored. We learn that the regulators were under resourced and solid experience available on the West Coast was not adequately utilised. In the twenty-first century, the provision of a safe workplace is the absolute responsibility of the mine owner who must provide a safe place and systems of work and in so doing ensure that each and every employee does nothing to endanger his or her fellow worker, whilst it is the responsibility of the regulator to provide an audit, compliance and investigation function.
The book exposes the risks of compromises in this capital intensive industry, with a relatively small company attempting to develop a major mine and the myriad of issues to be addressed in such an undertaking. We learn about the pressures of a fast-track to production approach, a can-do management which is slow to accept and rectify poor decisions, pressures to perform, schedule optimism, the impact of delays on key priorities, the lack of corporate technical knowledge and experience available in larger organisations, imprecise boundaries of responsibility between the board and management, focus on fund-raising potentially at the expense of mine site issues. Ultimately it provides an excellent but tragic example of how insufficient upfront investment and shortcuts lead to serious issues and vastly greater costs and unacceptable outcomes in the development and early operations phase. Shortly after the explosion in November 2010, Pike River Coal with a $340 million investment in the mine was placed in receivership leaving no funds for recovery, outstanding payments, compensation, debt service or fines.
This is a book that all students, operators and managers in the underground mining industry should read and understand. Irrespective of the causes of the disaster, the trauma wrought on families and friends by workplace injuries and deaths so ably documented by the author should reinforce to industry practitioners the importance of assessing all the relevant risks and ensuring that appropriate and adequate controls have been implemented and are properly maintained.
It is to be sincerely hoped that an opportunity arises in the not too distant future for the remains of the Pike River 29 to be recovered to provide closure for families, friends and the community, and that new legislation will bring New Zealand’s workplace health and safety system into the twenty first century.
Rod Hanson is an Australian mining engineer and mining company director with over 40 years’ experience operating, developing and managing mines in Australia and overseas.