Pike River: damning new information

Police this week released a surprisingly honest statement about the Department of Labour (now Worksafe).

Detective Superintendent Peter Read is highly critical of Mines Safety Inspectors (MSI) who were the police?s mining experts in the identification, handling and recording of evidence for the Pike River mine investigation. Quote.

Police would often defer to these inspectors who were supposed to know more about mining than them. However Read talked about them as being “out of their depth”. End of quote.

Radio NZ

If mining inspectors were out of their depth after the disaster, were they any better when they signed off safety measures for Pike River mine operations?

The answer is evident: No. This government agency was under-resourced and ill-equipped and lacked the experience necessary to provide safety assurances for an underground coal mine. Quote.

He [Read] noted they [Department of Labour] were investigating themselves over their own role in the disaster, and asked whether the police should have gone to somebody more independent for advice, such as state-owned coal company Solid Energy.

end quote.

Read is on the right track in recognising the multiple failings of involving the MSI in the police investigation.

First, they should never have been involved because of their potential culpability. Second, MSI failed to provide police with the expert advice they had asked for. Finally, crucial evidence from the site that MSI handled went missing.

But then Read goes off-road in suggesting that Solid Energy could have supplied police with expert advice. This could never have been an option because Solid Energy was Pike River?s sole competitor in New Zealand, giving them a glaring conflict of interest. It would be like asking Qantas to investigate an aspect of Air NZ operations following a disaster here. You wouldn?t do it.

In defence of the police, at the time of the disaster they were unaware of the inadequacies of MSI, but now they know better. Quote.

Fault is found with the Department of Labour’s own record keeping, with Mr Read saying much of their findings were confined to note books and they did not have systems in place to manage their own investigation file in a “logical sequence”. He said because of this the police were still missing information.

end quote.

Pike River families asked what happened to the switchboard door shown in photos taken immediately after the explosion, along with other potentially important items of interest also missing. Quote.

Documents released by the Pike River families show the handling of exhibits from the mine was mismanaged with the enquiry head at the time describing the chain of evidence as ?diabolical?. 

The revelation casts doubt on whether a potentially crucial piece of evidence to the cause of the explosion, a switchboard door, will ever be found.

end quote.

Unless evidence is found a police prosecution is unlikely. 

Pike River families want blame apportioned and may be rethinking pinning everything on Peter Whittall, given this new police information.   Quote.

Mr Read said the Department of Labour interviewed a fraction of the people the police talked to and gathered information that would prove their case, instead of trying to corroborate what people were saying by checking with others, as the police would do.

He notes police will probably not be in a position to decide whether a criminal prosecution is possible until they are able to get into the mine and says they will probably “sit on the fence” until this happens. On the workplace safety charges, he says these could also be difficult to prove in court given the state of the Department of Labour’s exhibits.

end quote.

MSI collected, handled and recorded Pike River evidence for the police but they should have been nowhere near it. They chose who they spoke to and who they didn?t. They should have been nowhere near potential witnesses either. Quote.

In a statement, WorkSafe said it did not exist at the time and had no involvement in the investigation, so it would be inappropriate for it to comment.

end quote.

Talk about butt covering! There?s a very bad smell about this new information. It reeks of a cover up.

This police report is supported by murmurings from within the mining industry well before Pike River blew up. Its frustrations were with relatively young and inexperienced MSI staff who had no specific knowledge of health and safety in either underground or surface mines – but thought they did.

Their inspections were cursory, which gave no confidence to operators, but worst of all, they considered themselves superior to the very experienced mining professionals they were supposed to be checking and monitoring.

Reports of operations being interrupted with odd requests from MSI to make strange changes for ‘safety’ reasons were viewed by the industry as ‘ego tripping’ and complaints about them to the Department of Labour went unheeded.

For the sake of the Pike River families let?s hope the police continue their good work in uncovering the real truths behind Pike River so that blame is apportioned where it is due. Let us also hope that they start digging above Peter Whittall’s head where the real decisions about the Pike River mine were made.