Pike River Mine’s re-entry might be led by a former chief mines inspector.

It was confirmed yesterday that former Labour leader Andrew Little is the minister in charge of preparing to re-enter the Pike River mine, the site of a 2010 disaster which killed 29 men on the South Island’s West Coast.

The appointment of Little, a former union boss, was endorsed yesterday by Pike River families spokesman Bernie Monk, who told Newsroom he had his pick for the man to lead the re-entry.

Tony Forster, the Scot who used to run New Zealand’s mines inspectorate, has been vocal about re-entry to the Pike River Mine. In an email to the Pike families, read out in Parliament in November last year, he said re-entering the mine’s drift “could be done quickly, safely and within the budget originally allocated”. He said he was personally prepared to go in.

Monk – who lost son Michael, 23, in the disaster – told Newsroom Forster “wants to come back and do this job”.

“This is my personal opinion, I think he’ll be the man that’ll lead this.”

Monk said the families’ core list of experts included Forster, who is also a former principal inspector of mines in the United Kingdom, respected international mining experts Dr David Creedy and Bob Stevenson, UK mines rescue expert Brian Robinson and former Pike re-entry manager, from 2012 to 2014, Robin Hughes.

The coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First mentions a Pike River “re-entry”, but Monk is firm on what will happen.

“There’s going to be a manned re-entry.”

Asked about recent gas readings in the mine, Monk says: “Everything’s inert.”

What that means is it’s full of methane and “controllable”.

“For those people who don’t understand, we have never had another explosion since those last explosions, which is coming up to seven years, so what does that tell the country about how safe the mine is?”

Little told RNZ this morning Pike River was a high priority and he wanted to meet the Pike families, their representatives and experts as soon as possible.

“I’ve seen some of the planning and the documentation the families have got.

“I know the experts that they’ve retained and they are world-class.

“It’s now just a question of seeing what the information is and putting a plan of action together.”

Monk says Little has attended Pike River memorial services every year. As it happens, he met some of the families in Wellington on Monday, while they were there to attend a Labour Day choral commemoration.

Monk: “It didn’t surprise me that he was named as he would probably want to follow through the journey that he’s started even long before he came into power as the Labour leader.

“We can work with him.”

“We will certainly get some of the people who stopped us from going in there having to answer the question, why wasn’t this done sooner?”

Speaking between serving drinks at Greymouth’s Paroa Hotel, owned by his family for 64 years, Monk says the families’ experts are still working on the “facts and figures”, including budgets and staffing for a re-entry. It’s hoped the last documents will be with relevant ministers in “a week or so”, Monk says.

“We’re going to be a big part of helping them through this.”

In February, two weeks after calling the election, Prime Minister Bill English ordered a stop to state-owned company Solid Energy’s work to seal the mine. That ended a months-long standoff between the victims’ families and Solid Energy workers and contractors who were working on plans to seal the mine.

New Zealand First was an early champion of a re-entry to Pike River. Pre-election, the leaders of Labour, the Green Party, United Future and the Māori Party signed a commitment to enter the mine.

What will the re-entry mean for the families?

Monk says: “The thing that we’ll get from this is there’s a huge possibility of a lot of bodies being able to be retrieved and given back and give some closure to some of the families. We may not get them all but I’ve got a strong suspicion that we’ll get quite a few.”

He also hopes for “accountability and justice”.

“We may not get people in courts, and stuff like that, but we will certainly get some of the people who stopped us from going in there having to answer the question, why wasn’t this done sooner?”

A Royal Commission blamed the tragedy on multiple health and safety failures within the mine and a lack of government oversight, which led to a huge overhaul of safety laws.

Pike River Coal was convicted and fined for health and safety violations but had little left to pay compensation. The Government initially laid 12 charges against former Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall, but they were dropped in December 2013 after the Crown accepted a deal to pay $3.41 million to the families. That deal, labelled “blood money” by the Pike familes, is still being fought in the courts – a Supreme Court hearing was held earlier this month.

The West Coast mine was once the darling of the National Government for its small environmental footprint. In a press release last month, owner Solid Energy said it has been working on an unmanned re-entry to the mine drift with a team of experts. That plan will presumably have to be scrapped.

Solid Energy has sold most of its assets and is expected to be wound up in February next year.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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