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21/11/2018 — General
Political football inflates on Pike River
By Ross Louthean

News reports and political statements this week show that a political football has developed on the Pike River coal mine disaster and re-entry proposal.

The scenario has been good cannon fodder for Radio New Zealand and was precipitated by the Minister Responsible for Pike River re-entry Andrew Little claiming the previous National government should make an apology for the disaster eight years ago that claimed the lives of 29 miners.

The Government's independent adviser on the mine recovery operation, former Air New Zealand chief Rob Fyfe, has called for such an apology to the families of the 29 men who died in the mine explosions in 2010.

However, speaking on Radio NZ’s Morning Report, National leader Simon Bridges said he did not believe families of the men who died were owed an apology from the current or previous government.

“I think what is true is the one thing that honours the legacy of these 29 men and their families best is what happened with the Royal Commission with an independent health and safety taskforce and then the most comprehensive health and safety changes in the history of NZ, particularly in mining, but in others areas as well.

“I think that's what honours the legacy of these men,” he said.

Bridges said that in terms of the re-entry of the damaged mine, the previous National government wanted to do it, but the advice was universal and clear that it wasn't the thing to do.

“If he (Little) has different information, that is good, I'm not against that but safety must be at the front of this,” Bridges said.

Some of the Pike River families support Andrew Little’s sentiment on the issue, and comments made show they still want a pound of flesh from the mine’s manager at the time of the methane explosion, Peter Whittall.

The problem with Pike River has been well covered by this website, including the fact Pike River mine operated at a time when there was only one mines inspector in NZ, the mine had only one decline (instead of a second egress which are mandatory for mechanised underground coal mines in Australia) and when the accident happened the police took control and spurned support offers from trained mine rescue groups from other mines.

The Pike River mine burned more money than it made, and the severe shortcomings on equipment and methane monitoring were exposed by the Royal Commission.

Solid Energy purchased the Pike River mine from the liquidator well after the disaster, and at a time that Government-owned coal miner was spending too much money on projects and options that fell away when the coal price crashed. As a result, Solid Energy is no more.

The new management of Solid Energy had taken a hard look at Pike River and found it was too difficult to reopen and, worse, that the prospect of recovering the remains of the 29 men was fraught with danger.

NZResources reported on recent comments made by veteran geologist Dr Murray Cave to NewstalkZB who saw great expense with the re-entry attempt and said it was likely all the bodies would be in the workings beyond the drift, and behind a major rockfall where methane was a big issue.

Andrew Little has understandably become attached to the Pike families still living in the region and told RadioNZ “the families have been let down horribly, badly and that ought to be appropriately acknowledged and the best way to do that is through an appropriate apology.”

Simon Bridges believes the disaster had become too politicised.

“I'm very clear in my head, I don't want this to be a political football because those 29 men and their families deserve better than that,” he said.

One story last week gave a different view on one of the suffering families. Radio NZ said Christchurch mother Marion Curtin said she was left sitting by her phone feeling raw after the announcement of the Pike River Mine re-entry. Her son, Richard Holling, never came home after the November 2010 tragedy, but she wanted it to stay that way.

Some people might assume that all 29 affected families considered yesterday's news as a victory, she said, but she was one of the silent many who disagreed.

She said the plan was an “appalling” waste of $36 M.

Ms Curtin was grateful for the money already spent at the site, but at the same time wondered how others can't see “all the other important things in the country that the money could be spent on.”

Especially given the lack of certainty, she said, with nobody able to tell her exactly what the mine recovery experts would be looking for.

Ms Curtin told Radio NZ she loathed the fact it had become so political. She said the months leading up to last year's election were especially challenging.

“Some people liked that... the politicians climbing on board. I certainly didn't. That was my son's death they were playing with,” she said.

Sources: radionz.co.nz; newstalkzb.co.nz; nzresources.com

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A drilling platform on the Pike River mine re-entry quest. Source: Radio NZ; Photo Iain McGregor, AFP.