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Vol. 74/No. 47      December 13, 2010

29 die in New Zealand mine
as coal bosses drive production
(front page)
AUCKLAND, New Zealand—Twenty-nine miners were declared dead after a second methane gas explosion ripped through the Pike River coal mine November 25. The men had not been heard from since the first blast on November 19. The Pike River explosion is the worst New Zealand mine disaster in more than 90 years.

Two other miners who were underground at the time of the explosion, managed to struggle back to the surface and raise the alarm. They were away from the coal face, where the blast occurred, and escaped the full force of its impact.

Authorities prevented miners’ rescue crews from entering the mine over the following days because of continuing high gas levels. The crews were disbanded following the second explosion.

After a massive explosion November 28, the mine company owners reported that a coal fire was burning in the mine, and it may have to be sealed.

The following day the New Zealand government announced that it was establishing a royal commission of inquiry into the disaster. Prime Minister John Key said that the future of underground mining in New Zealand would rest on the findings of the commission.

The Pike River mine is in the Paparoa mountain range, 30 miles northeast of Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The region has been the center of coal mining in this country for more than a century. Work sites and schools there will close December 2 for a public memorial meeting. Those killed range in age from Joseph Dunbar, 17, working his first day at the mine, to 62-year-old Keith Valli.

The coal seam being mined at Pike River contains high levels of potentially explosive methane gas. A mine engineer with connections to the miners at Pike River said company procedures were inadequate to address this problem, and pointed to a number of incidents where methane gas readings reached high levels in the past 12 months.

Marty Palmer, who had just finished the morning shift, told his son Brendon as he passed him entering the mine that there were gas problems.

Brenda Rackley, partner of John Hale, another miner who perished, told reporters that friends and relatives could not understand how the men had died in a mine less than two years old.

“I can’t get it around my head that they had the best technology in the world … how this could happen.”

Rackley said her partner had often expressed concern about the mine’s safety. She hoped the inquiry would investigate near misses and other safety incidents in the mine’s history.

Rising demand for high quality coking coal for steel production in China and India has led to a profit-driven push to accelerate coal production over recent years. Pike River is a new company that began production last year.

Responding to a growing number of incidents in New Zealand mines over recent years, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, which organizes coal miners, has been calling for the return of mine inspectors. The inspectors are on site at all times during mine production and check safety before the start of each shift. The practice was ended two decades ago.

Following the death of two coal miners on the west coast in 2006, a Department of Labour review proposed increased mining regulations and a return to union-elected check inspectors.

That proposal was opposed by mining companies and the government. Mine companies said it would create a confrontational management style. Among the opponents was the Pike River Mining Company, which said in a submission on the 2008 report that check inspectors were “totally inappropriate and not required.”

Seventy-year-old retired miner Jim O’Donnell told the New Zealand Herald that there had been a dumbing down of safety measures since his time on the job. He had been one of those elected by union co-workers as a check inspector. If the men had safety concerns they would go to him and he could go to the chief inspector, who could shut the mine. The crucial part of this process was the independence from the company, he said.  
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