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Vol. 75/No. 5      February 7, 2011

Gov’t plans to seal coal
mine in New Zealand
GREYMOUTH, New Zealand—Police and company decisions to halt efforts to recover the bodies of 29 miners killed in the Pike River coal mine last year and to seal the mine, on top of continuing revelations of unsafe conditions prior to the blast, have added to the anger of relatives and union members here.

Police Commissioner Howard Broad told the media January 13 that “the recovery phase of this operation will come to a conclusion.” He passed responsibility for the mine over to receivers PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who said the mine would be “temporarily” sealed.

The police announcement was a focal point of discussion on the tragedy during our January 15-16 visit here. The lack of consultation with families proved a particularly sore point.

“I’d like to see my brother in a coffin,” Daniel Duggan told the Militant January 15. His brother Christopher Duggan was among those killed at the Pike River mine, where Daniel also worked as a surface controller.

Trevor Bolderson, who is a miner at the nearby Spring Creek Mine and site convenor there for the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), spoke to the Militant January 15.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the just-announced decision to seal the mine, said Bolderson, “The wrong people are in charge; you don’t have police conduct a search and rescue mission in a coal mine.”

Pike River bosses implemented a flawed plan for the mine. “It’s a one way in, one way out mine,” with a 1.5 mile underground road, said Bolderson, and “the only other exit was through a 150-meter [500-foot] ventilation shaft fitted with a ladder. You saw the flames coming out of that shaft in one of the explosions.”

After slow initial recruitment to the EPMU at the mine, which opened in November 2008, some 75 percent of Pike River workers had joined the union by November 2010, Bolderson said. Despite that progress the union presence at Pike River was weak.

Many workers were new both to the union and the industry, the unionist said, and were thrown straight into the extraction area with minimal training.

In mid-December EPMU president Andrew Little stated that the upcoming Royal Commission of Inquiry must take up revelations that came out in a TV3 “60 Minutes” program. Miner Brent Forrestor and others interviewed “revealed unknown information including a previous gas evacuation” and ignitions underground, according to the television station.

Paul Maunder, a writer and union partisan living in Blackball, added an “ironical footnote” to the story in a January 16 interview with Militant reporters. “When I went to the Pike River site as a volunteer ambulance member on the evening of the disaster,” he told us, “a company poster in the mine's smoke room congratulated the workers on achieving a record production day that very week.” Valma McGowan, whose husband Robert was killed in the Black Reef mine in 2006, told the Militant that she and the EPMU have consistently called for the reinstatement of safety inspectors, which were removed from the mines under legislation in 1992.

Following the Pike River disaster McGowan wrote to Prime Minister John Key, reminding him that in October 2009 and May 2010 she had written to the government urging that it “please look at the other mines in the area, they are an accident waiting to happen.” The prime minister has “blood on [his] hands,” she said. “You come to Greymouth for the memorial service and stood there making a speech which meant nothing! You were the people that had the power to act, to prevent this and chose to do nothing!”
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