Chairman of Solid Energy says he’ll resign if forced to let people into Pike River

The current board chair of Solid Energy has said he will resign if forced to let people into the mine.

Andy Coupe, chairman of failed state-owned coal miner Solid Energy, said at a fiery select committee hearing yesterday that he would consider resigning if the Government ordered the company to re-enter the Pike River coal mine.

Solid Energy?s annual financial review at Parliament?s commerce select committee was dominated by questions about its decision to seal the mine, which has been closed since a gas explosion in 2010 killed 29 workers. The company?s chair appeared immediately after Fiona Kidman, who presented a petition asking the mine not be sealed. Family members and supporters packed the public gallery for both hearings. Prime Minister Bill English said this week sealing of the mine would be halted after he met with the families.

NZ First leader Winston Peters repeatedly criticised the committee?s chairwoman Melissa Lee for her allocation of questions ? at one point saying she was chairing the meeting like a fascist ? and clashed with Mr Coupe, interjecting during his initial presentation and when the chair was answering questions.

Mr Peters, who in December pledged to be first to re-enter the mine, quizzed Mr Coupe over the possibility of unmanned entry to the drift, and criticised him for not knowing the details of his coverage and premiums for his director?s insurance.

That’s just silly from Winston. Insurance companies are notorious for declining cover after events using any weasel clause possible. If a director allowed people to enter the mine despite OSH laws, ironically toughened as a result of Pike River, then that would be grounds for negligence and removal of cover.

Mr Coupe said it would be a “perverse response” if Parliament changed the law to remove Solid Energy?s responsibility for the safety of a re-entry crew, as Mr Peters suggested, and he would resign if that happened as he “would not want to be director of a company that put people at risk”. If the Government instructed the re-entry of the mine, Mr Coupe said he would have to consider resigning.

He would have to resign or he could and likely would face five years in prison for putting people at risk deliberately.

Labour leader Andrew Little asked Mr Coupe whether the decision to seal the mine was driven by financial considerations, referencing a report from November 2014 which said the cost of recovery would exceed the budget.

“Safety is the reason we stopped. Notwithstanding that it was failed on safety, there was also reference to technical feasibility and financial credibility because the budget exceeds the amount agreed with the Crown in 2013,” Mr Coupe said.

“Ultimately, reducing safety to a sufficient degree does come down to money. It would be foolish to say cost would not be a factor. If re-entry was to be pursued at all costs, there would probably be a way it could be done.

“We have no problem being transparent, but to the extent costs are involved, that would be a decision the creditors of Solid Energy would have to approve,” Mr Coupe said.

“The decision not to re-enter was made six or eight months before we went into voluntary administration, and some three or four months before we went to the Government.”

Andrew Little’s stance is shameful, wanting to change the law to exempt the company and directors from liability at the very site that caused the deaths of 29 workers. It is shameful corpse cuddling and dancing on the graves of victims for some sort of bizarre political gain of indeterminate value.

The tragedy could have all been avoided if Labour hadn’t insisted on protecting two blue ducks and refused to allow open casting of the mine. Now all those resources will sit beneath the earth never to be used.