Pike River fine “shockingly low” – EPMU

Flames coming out of a ventilation shaft at Pike River

An Australian contractor that lost three staff members in the Pike River Mine explosion two years ago has been fined $46,800 in the Greymouth District Court after admitting three breaches of the Health and Safety Act. The union representing miners says the figure is too low.

“The EPMU shares the concerns of the Pike River families over the low level of the fine. This sends the wrong message to companies looking to cut corners on health and safety and is particularly concerning given the loss of life at the mine.” Said EPMU Director of Organising Alan Clarence.

“The Government needs to ensure this kind of employment practice is not allowed again. It can do this by introducing worker-elected check inspectors to ensure safety checks are being done, and by strengthening the law to ensure companies cannot contract out of their health and safety

VLI, a subsidiary of Sydney-based Valley Longwall International had been facing a potential fine of up to $750,000. They had employed explosion victims Josh Ufer, 25, Ben Rockhouse, 21, and Joseph Dunbar, 17.

Mine safety under scrutiny

Flames coming out of a ventilation shaft at Pike River

Byron Clark

Questions about the safety of New Zealand mines are being asked after incidents last month. On July 25 a miner was nearly killed by falling coal while installing roof supports in a new tunnel at the Spring Creek mine on the West Coast, near the site of the infamous Pike River mine. Just over a week prior, twenty-eight miners became trapped by a truck engine fire at Newmont Waihi Gold’s Trio mine, in the northern Hauruki district. In that case all the miners were evacuated safely.

Solid Energy, the owners of the Spring Creek mine, have been criticised by mine safety consultant Dave Feickert, who told Radio New Zealand that company is complacent and, at times, arrogant. “I’ve come to the conclusion that they are a company that must raise their game. They claim to be best-practice, they claim to be introducing the Queensland model which is the world’s best – well, not all of it, because they don’t want to have check inspectors. They’ve made these claims and I’m afraid they have just not proven it.”

Back in February, the Department of Labour issued Spring Creek with a prohibition notice following three separate safety incidents related to system breakdowns in safety controls. The notice was lifted two weeks later after the department said it was happy with the company’s response to the incidents.

In the wake of the Wahi fire the union representing miners, the EPMU, also called for the implementation of the Queensland model “One of the key elements of the Queensland model is for workers to elect their own check inspectors to ensure there’s an independent and trusted safety representative on the job to signal the alarm as soon as potential safety hazards arise.” Said assistant national secretary Ged O’Connell.

“We understand the Government is waiting on the Pike River Royal Commission report, but it’s increasingly clear that unless our mine safety standards are brought up to international standards New Zealand’s miners will continue to be put at risk.”

The Huntly East underground coal mine, also owned by Solid Energy was also closed for several days in June. The state owned company is one which the government has earmarked for privatisation.

Pike River update: Compensation and investigation

By Byron Clark (Christchurch branch WP member)
‘‘I know a number of external parties who have expressed interest in the asset”

These were the words of Pike River Coal chairman John Dow, quoted in The Press on January 14th in an article where the main topic was the police decision to ‘pull the plug’ on attempts to recover the bodies of twenty nine miners from the Pike River mine. It’s a strange world we live in where “asset” and “mass grave” can be interchangeable. With the police ending their recovery attempt, responsibility for the mine lies with the receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Receiver John Fisk told Radio New Zealand that they have about $10 million in cash, plus a number of assets above the ground and in the mine. However, if there is not enough money to re-enter the mine, the land will be handed back to the government. If that happens, the Department of Conservation is most likely to assume control of the mine, and responsibility for the bodies of the workers still encased within it.

[Read more…]

The West Coast mining tragedy – An international and historical class issue

Byron Clark The Spark December 2010 – January 2011

There is a famous slogan from a banner carried by striking miners at Waihi in 1912, “If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, good god we have bought it fair”. The slogan brings up images of early twentieth century industrialism; gruelingly hard work in unsafe environments, ruthless exploitation of workers by wealthy capitalists, and accidents abounded. In light of the Pike River mine disaster, the slogan does not seem as anachronistic as it may have prior to November. Indeed, not since 1914 when 43 miners were killed in a mine explosion in Huntly has New Zealand seen a mining disaster of such magnitude. Many have questioned how this disaster could have happened in a developed country, in the year 2010. It’s not the first one however; in April 29 miners died in a gas explosion in West Virginia, USA. The Pike River tragedy has an eerie sense of deja vu for some. Lawyer Davitt McAteer, who is heading an investigation of the USA deaths, was quoted by The New Zealand Herald as saying “You can’t suggest that the mining industry is going forward into the 21st century with the rate that it’s killing people.”

As the dust settles on the West Coast, it is becoming increasingly clear that the pursuit of profit was put ahead of the safety of workers. While Pike River Coal is one of New Zealand’s largest corporations, and valued at $400 million, the company made a $54.1 million loss between July 2006 and June 2010, and was under pressure from its major shareholder, New Zealand Oil & Gas, to improve its performance. The safety standards of the mine have been condemned by experts such as Andrew Watson, the operations manager of United Kingdom Mines Rescue Operations, who told the New Zealand Herald that methane levels had to have reached 5 to 15 percent of the atmosphere for the explosion to occur. In British mines, work stops if methane levels reached just 1.25 percent, and mines are evacuated once they reach 2 percent. Watson stated that “either the warning system was inadequate, or it was not sufficiently monitored”. The most likely cause of the methane build up was a power outage that disabled the mine’s ventilation system; there was no backup generator. Geologist Murray Cave had warned back in 2007 that the geological risks at the mine site included a pit bottom with deep, highly gassy coals and the associated risk of “outburst”, or gas explosions. The Hawera fault zone running through the mine could be an additional source of methane. [Read more…]

Pike river mine mass killing

As we learned this afternoon, the rescue we hoped for will not take place. Because of a second major explosion the miners at the Pike river site are all almost certainly dead.

Hard questions remain to be answered and there will be a struggle for the truth to see the light.

As that inevitable struggle unfolds, there are two positive ways workers can respond to this mass killing. One is to donate to the relief fund for the bereft families and community.

The other way is for organised labour to get its bottle back, so that we’re better organised to prevent future fatal industrial accidents  killing our friends, sons and daughters.

The union role in the Pike river disaster has been marginal. The one time it was openly advanced, the boss class closed ranks and drew their claws.

Senior Cabinet Ministers rounded on Australian journalists covering the Pike River coal mine crisis, labelling their questions “disgraceful” and branding one a “tosspot”.

Police Minister Judith Collins this afternoon heaped scorn upon Ean Higgins, from The Australian, for some questions he asked at a media conference this morning.

“Frankly, those journalists need to sit down and think about what they’re actually doing. What they are doing is they are cheapening the work of other journalists working in Greymouth and they are absolutely not respecting the terrible time the people of Greymouth are going through,” Collins said.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee earlier blasted Higgins as “boorish” for asking why a “local country cop” was leading the rescue operation.

Collins said the question was “disgraceful”.

What caused all this rukuss?

Foul mouthed Australian Ean Higgins had employed the “u” word.

Higgins  asked why Superintendent Gary Knowles was heading the rescue operation instead of a mining union.

Police superintendent Knowles then asserted that the disaster “wasn’t a union matter”.

If Knowles is right on that, then unions are irrelevant and should stop collecting dues and shut up shop.

If Knowles is wrong, Kiwi unions need to find the guts to stand up and show why we deserve to take up space.