Staff seconded from the Defence Force and Police are helping the Pike River Recovery Agency plot a forensic examination of the West Coast mine’s 2.3km drift. David Williams reports.

Pike River Recovery Agency has spent $2.5 million in its first financial year, including nine staff paid more than $100,000 a year.

And its boss warns that re-entering the West Coast coal mine, the site of a 2010 explosion that cost 29 lives, might cost millions of dollars more than its original $23 million budget, as the complexities of the operation become apparent.

Unaudited figures released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the agency’s biggest operational expense to June 30 was $749,000 for its 13 fixed term staff, and $524,000 for consultants and contractors. Its 14th staff member, senior project manager, Lloyd Steward, started on Monday.

Staff have also been seconded from the Defence Force and Police, to plan the re-entry and plot a forensic examination of the mine’s 2.3km drift, which is sealed at the 30-metre mark. Up to 10 police and forensic experts might be involved in that examination.

Agency chief executive Dave Gawn, who’s employed by the State Services Commission and is paid between $410,000 and $419,000 a year, says when the agency’s accounts are audited, there’ll be a disparity between the expected and actual spend on employees and contracted staff. It’s had to pay a premium for statutory mining roles, some of which there are few left in the country.

The tiny organisation had establishment costs of $343,000. Regarding the overall costs, Gawn says: “I think it’s about right.”

Yesterday, the Greymouth-based agency, also known as Te Kāhui Whakamana Rua Tekau Mā Iwa, announced it was advertising for five new mining staff. Gawn reveals that’s because it couldn’t find a single prime contractor to be responsible for all the recovery operations.

“I don’t think we should be particularly surprised by that because it’s complex, it’s multi-layered, and it’s very uncertain. There are no guarantees until such time as we’ve done the risk assessment and had the minister approve the plan.”

Production over safety

The 2010 mining tragedy rocked the nation and led to an overhaul of lax health and safety laws. The Pike River Coal company, criticised by a Royal Commission for its executives’ culture of production over safety, was convicted and fined in 2013, but was wound up before paying $3.4 million in reparation.

Former mine boss Peter Whittall, now running a resthome in Sydney, escaped prosecution after agreeing to a reparation payment – a deal later ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Whittall told Stuff earlier this month: “Do I feel guilt? No.”

The victims’ families repeatedly called on the previous government to re-enter the mine. Tensions reached their peak in late 2016, when family members of the so-called Pike 29 blocked concrete trucks on their way to seal the mine. After the change of Government, the agency was established and ownership of the mine passed from state coal miner Solid Energy.

Gawn, a former chief of the Army whose last role was overseeing peace-keeping in Israel for the United Nations, reiterates the agency’s primary mission is to reclaim the 2.3km drift. It will not enter the 5.5km of inner tunnels, known as the mine workings, where the bodies of the 29 men are likely to be.

“The primary purpose is to actually do the forensics examination to try and determine what happened – that’s the underlying purpose of this whole operation.

“Yes it will provide some degree of closure to the families. Yes, we might find some human remains in the drift – I think that’s less likely, but we might, and we’d certainly recover those. But it is primarily to do this forensics examination to try and determine what happened so that we can learn from that.”

He echoes the words of Pike River Re-entry Minister Andrew Little that the drift is a crime scene and, depending on what evidence is found, a criminal investigation could follow.

Dave Gawn is a former chief of the Army. Photo: Pike River Recovery Agency

There’s a lot of work to do before the agency, which is working closely with the victims’ families, makes its recommendation to Little in late October.

Gawn says the mine site, in the Paparoa National Park, had a bare minimum of maintenance as Solid Energy was being wound down and needs to be brought back up to standard. That includes spending up to $400,000 for new portal emergency doors, to be closed immediately, if needed, during the operation. Helicopter landing pads need upgrading, as do access road bridges, the latter to cope with heavy vehicles.

A new power transformer is being built at Pike River. And a nitrogen plant – that will pump the gas into the methane-rich mine – has been ordered from Australia and should arrive in the coming weeks. It’s hoped the transformer and nitrogen generation plant will be commissioned by the end of the next month.

High-profile workshops involving the agency’s “technical expert alliance” has come up with what Gawn calls a baseline concept for re-entry – signed off by Little last month – and a plan for tackling ventilation in the mine and potential instability. Three options have emerged: re-entering the main drift with a return airway, drilling a large-diameter borehole from the top, or building a new tunnel into the drift, allowing a second means of exit.

A 12-day detailed risk assessment workshop will be held next month. The results will be peer-reviewed and, in mid-October, presented to a high-level panel, including Gawn, agency chief operating officer Dinghy Pattinson and Government adviser Rob Fyfe, a former Air New Zealand boss. After which the agency will make its ministerial recommendation.

Gawn: “I’m not going to try and predetermine which way it goes, other than to say from my perspective the simpler the better. Simple is good.”

All three options are feasible, he says. A second tunnel is attractive because it provides another exit. But there’s also technical and construction considerations, as well as the helicopter hours for removing fill. Chopper use is also a consideration for the borehole idea, as well as having people working in isolated conditions “on the top of a mountain”.

Going through the “front door” of the drift is simple. But, Gawn says, “from a public perception perspective, you’re doing exactly what Pike did in the first instance – in that you’re going into a tunnel and you don’t have a second means of escape”. That can be mitigated by measures such as rescue chambers, he says. But he adds: “Managing the political and public risk is just as important as managing the total risk.”

“What we can’t cost is what we don’t know. And nobody’s been in that mine for eight years.” – Dave Gawn

Then there are the costs.

“All of those [options] have different cost elements to them,” Gawn says. “But we can cost that reasonably well. What we can’t cost is what we don’t know. And nobody’s been in that mine for eight years. So as you go through the gate, if we identify that it requires significant strata support – roof and walls and so on – then that’s a huge cost.”

The Government’s original estimates for re-entering the drift ranged from a high of $32 million to $18 million. Gawn: “It’s quite possible that it’ll be far closer to the high end or slightly over. But it’s also possible, if we get everything right, and everything lines up, including the weather, that it might actually be closer to the low-to-mid twenties.”

Gawn says he’s got confidence in his team and, importantly, the technical experts, “all of whom say that we can do this; the ventilation plan is solid”.

Yes, there’s much to prove. The agency needs more data, particularly about gas flows. It needs to prove the nitrogen plant, once commissioned, can do its job of rendering the mine inert, before oxygen can be pumped into the drift. But the experts say it’s doable.

“I’m confident that we can do this,” Gawn says. “If it all lines up we should be knocking on the door of the 30-metre seal by the end of the year.”

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

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