Ahead of next week’s 10-year anniversary of the Pike River Mine disaster, the re-entry reaches a crucial phase. David Williams reports.
Cross the Grey River at Stillwater, past the town’s sprawling sawmill, and they’re easy to miss.
Towering power poles, dwarfed by the forested, mountainous landscape, carry high-voltage wires across the river. From there, about 15km north-east of Greymouth, on the South Island’s West Coast, the procession of poles follows the dips of valleys, the rises of forested hills, past Blackball, to a WestPower electricity substation at the Logburn Rd turnoff.
Once, those wires carried the promise of jobs and economic prosperity. Pike River Coal Ltd told the country, and investors around the world, how its precision mining operation would create 150 jobs and produce a million tonnes of coal a year from deep in the mountains of Paparoa National Park.
As we now know, thanks to a Royal Commission inquiry, the production estimates were “illusory”, and the indebted company disregarded health and safety considerations, including finishing the necessary infrastructure, in its drive for coal.
Its workers, not helped by poor oversight by the Department of Labour, were exposed to unacceptable risks. Numerous warnings about dangerous methane levels went unheeded.
On November 19, 2010, an explosion killed 29 men. Two others, Daniel Rockhouse and Russell Smith, escaped. Three more explosions rocked the mine over the next nine days before it was sealed.
As the 10th anniversary of the tragedy looms, those same high-voltage lines now carry the hopes of most families of the Pike River 29. Instead of powering coal production, the electricity is being used to pump nitrogen and fresh air into different parts of the mine, divided by a foam “plug”.
(The nitrogen plant’s electricity bill combined with equipment leases are the Recovery Agency’s second-biggest cost, next to staff salaries and contractor payments.)
A new government agency was established by the Labour-led coalition after the 2017 election with the mission of “recovering” the 2.3km drift – a stone access tunnel to the coal seams. That meant hatching a plan to make it safe enough to physically re-enter the mine, to search for evidence of wrongdoing, and possibly recover human remains.
Workers breached the mine’s 30-metre seal in May last year.
Now, they’re not much more than 100 metres from the foam plug, known as the Rocsil plug, where they’ll build a concrete wall and tunnel through the foam to access the rockfall beyond, in the nitrogen-rich atmosphere.
Big questions remain.
What sparked the explosion? What evidence will be unearthed and will anyone be charged? Will human remains be found? Has the $50 million re-entry project been worth it?
The answers to at least some of those questions should be known within months, before the mine is sealed and the land handed back to the Department of Conservation.
Pike’s plush offices
Dinghy Pattinson sits behind the desk in what used to be Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall’s office, at Pike River’s grey-roofed, green-walled administration block – 1.1km from the mine portal.
Beside the Pike River Recovery Agency operations manager’s phone sit two pieces of the access tunnel’s 170m seal, with rags and a cross-hatching stamp visible. His cup’s adorned with images of his television appearances. Scrawled on his window are sayings, including, in capitals: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept!”
For buildings plonked on a mountainside – weka poke around on the gravel outside, and sometimes, briefly, enter the mine portal – they seem relatively plush. It’s like a resort camp, declares Pattinson, who, through his long mining career, is used to working out of portable cabins. “They spent their money on the surface,” he says of Pike River Coal. “They should have spent that money underground.”
Pike River Coal’s old training block, which is nearer the access road, is now occupied by police, with three shipping containers sitting outside. “They’re on-site every day,” Pattinson says.
A chopper buzzes “on the hill” above the mine, taking workers to check monitoring and gas lines.
From the level above the administration block, next to the operations block’s screen-heavy control room, comes the constant drone of nitrogen compressors, which have operated continuously since October 2018. Nitrogen is pumped into the mine workings by a borehole, purging it of dangerous methane gas, drawn out of the mine using a gadget called a venturi.
“We’ve put over 10 million cubic metres of nitrogen into the mine,” Pattinson says.
Workers’ progress up the tunnel is measured in metres from the portal. On Monday, the barrier – a plastic fence stretched across the tunnel roadway to mark the end of the working area, “ERZ 1” (and the start of the no-go zone, “ERZ 0”) – was at 2127m.
It’s slow-going right now through the difficult “Hawera fault crush zone”. Eight-metre-long bolts – 240 of them, in all – have to be fixed into the ceiling between 2085m to 2240m. WorkSafe inspectors have been into the mine to witness the roof bolts being installed.
The end is in sight. Mine manager Greg Duncan says workers can see the Rocsil plug. “It’s in the distance.”
But the foam plug isn’t a “rated barrier”. It’s designed to let water run beneath it – about six to eight litres a second flow out of the portal, mostly from damp parts of the drift.
A concrete wall, with doors in it, will be built – probably in early December – in front of the Rocsil plug. Then workers will go through an airlock and burrow through the plug, scraping out a 1m-wide, 1.8m-tall and ten metre-long tunnel into a nitrogen-rich atmosphere in which long-duration breathing apparatus is essential.
Pattinson will be one of those fully trained, and “mine-competent” enough to go through the air chamber. “Once we get through the other side of the plug, we’re only eight metres away from the rockfall. And then we can do our forensics in that area.”
The Government has ruled out workers going beyond the rockfall, upsetting some Pike families, as experts have said it would be too technically challenging and costly.
Once agency workers have retreated back to the portal side of the new concrete wall, forensics will be carried out in 600m of side tunnels known as pit bottom in stone. That’s where mining infrastructure, such as underground electrical substations and switchboards, are housed. (It’s also where explosion survivor Daniel Rockhouse was refuelling a loader on November 19, 2010.)
Even if no human remains are found, has it been a job well done? “Most definitely,” Pattinson says. “The mandate was to recover the tunnel to the rockfall, to allow the police to carry out full investigation, so we would have achieved that.”
He adds: “It’s also about giving the families closure – they fought for so long.”
Change of Government, change of attitude
Back in November 2016, Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton died in the mine disaster, and Sonya Rockhouse, who lost 21-year-old son Benjamin (she’s also mum of Daniel), were leading a protest on the Pike River access road against mine owner Solid Energy’s plans to permanently seal the mine. The protesting families, who were threatened with arrest, felt abandoned by the National-led Government, which maintained safe re-entry of the mine wasn’t possible.
Labour leader Andrew Little, who in 2010 was national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, which represented 13 of the Pike 29, urged the Government to show compassion.
As the 2017 election neared, Solid Energy, which went into voluntary administration in 2015 and was being wound up, was putting the finishing touches on plans for an unmanned re-entry, using a robot.
Soon after, as Little – who was replaced by Jacinda Ardern as leader – settled into his role as Pike River Re-entry Minister, the Supreme Court ruled unlawful a deal to withdraw charges against Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall, on a $3.41 million payment to the victims’ families by the company’s insurers.
The re-entry plan took the best part of a year to put together, but it was deemed technically feasible – despite the inherent unpredictability and challenges, including delays because of Covid-19.
The Recovery Agency and police brief the Family Reference Group, headed by Osborne, every Monday night, which is relayed back to other Pike families. (The group’s mine expert, Tony Forster, is sometimes on the call.)
Osborne says the agency and Little have been amazing, and she trusts the police team – despite reservations from some families.
“My voice hasn’t been swept under the carpet – I’ve felt empowered and included,” she says. “The sad thing is it’s 10 years that we should never have had to fight at all.”
A sign of how comfortable Osborne is with the re-entry is next week, for the 10th anniversary, she’s heading to Wellington on a different mission. Along with Family Reference Group members Rockhouse and Rowdy Durbridge, whose son Dan Herk died in the mine, Osborne will be pushing for stronger health and safety laws.
“That message still hasn’t hit home to so many people. We’ve had 700 people die [at work] since Pike River – that’s like a Pike River every five months in New Zealand.”
Of course she’ll also be thinking about “Milt”.
“I miss him, I really miss him,” she says. “I can never replace him. I was so fortunate to have a wonderful, wonderful man for 19 glorious years to share my life with, that I feel totally blessed to have that.”
But she also feels cheated that she won’t spend the rest of her life with him “because of ignorance and greed from mine management”. Ten years have passed without truth and accountability, she says.
“It’s such a raw deal that the 29 got, and I’m hoping that future prosecutions will bring some closure to some families because that’s what a lot of the families are waiting for.”
“The motivation of his family has been to hold him in front and do everything the way we feel would be the right thing to do for him.”
– Marion Curtin
Not every Pike family feels the same.
Marion Curtin has spoken out reluctantly and occasionally – mainly, she says, to correct the record. The Christchurch retiree, whose son Richard Holling died at Pike River, is appalled re-entry went ahead.
“To me it was politically motivated before the previous election,” she says. “I objected to my son’s death being used as a political ploy.”
She backs the National Government’s “insight and knowledge” about Pike River. Having endured the Canterbury earthquakes, she says the millions of dollars spent on re-entry could have had a better use.
“I have never been shown or told anything that justified re-entry.”
Curtin can’t wrap her head around the idea of justice for Pike River. “Justice for what? There was an explosion in a coal mine.” It was an accident, she says, and nobody knows for sure what happened. Everybody involved, even company management, has suffered, she says.
“If anyone can prove to me that somebody in that mine at the time lit a match or did something that was blatantly stupid that caused the explosion then I would feel that it was a deliberate act. But if it was, that person has already paid with their life so what else do you want?”
She won’t be marking the 10th anniversary: “I just don’t see the point.” Her family thinks of Richard’s life, not his death. That’s why they all eat boysenberry cheesecake, his favourite food, on his birthday – November 7.
“This is my son you’re talking about, this is my boy. We know what Richard was like. He would just hate that all this fuss was being made. He was a very gentle soul, very private, and so the motivation of his family has been to hold him in front and do everything the way we feel would be the right thing to do for him.”
When he was union national secretary, Little arrived in Greymouth the day after the explosion in 2010, and, over the following months, spent time on the West Coast preparing material to go to the Royal Commission.
The former Justice Minister, who, for a few months of this year leading up the election, was also Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, has a different view to Curtin.
“This was a workplace disaster that should never have happened,” Little says. “It was totally avoidable if management and the company had fulfilled their obligations and actually done their job – and I think the Royal Commission makes it very clear.”
The state bears some responsibility, too, Little says, for running down the Department of Labour’s mining inspectorate so that it had two people covering both open cast and underground mines. There weren’t sufficient inspections or oversight.
“For all those reasons we owe it to the families to do the best we can to achieve justice for them.”
Little argues the cost of Pike River is comparable with a standard police homicide investigation, which can run to between $1 million and $2 million. And while some Pike families aren’t supportive, the majority are. “And that’s one of the reasons we’re doing it.”
Back at Pike River’s administration block, Pattinson takes off his digital watch, replacing it with a wind-up one, and dons disposable overalls for going underground. That’s to protect workers from carcinogenic material – “products of combustion” – found on the tunnel’s charred walls and roof.
Pattinson says they’ve got to be cautious, including wearing respirators when dust is kicked up. But he adds: “The readings we’ve got, you could bathe in it for a number of years and it wouldn’t affect you.”
He wants to inspect the tunnel before reporting to Osborne later that night.
Safety to the fore
Pike River today couldn’t be more different than they were in 2010.
At the control room, operator Shane McGeady checks two forms of gas monitoring, real-time monitoring and a delayed version from what’s called a “tube bundle”, in which gas levels are sucked 4.5km from boreholes inside the mine, up over the rugged terrain and into a shed, where the tubes are separated and analysed. (When the explosion happened, the mine had no real-time gas sensors beyond the ventilation shaft reporting to the surface.)
In front of McGeady there’s a log of every movement taken by miners. “If I don’t hear from them within an hour, I’ll call them every hour just to keep contact.”
At the start of a day shift, because it’s been at least four hours since the mine was entered, two people carry out a pre-shift examination underground. One walks, the other follows behind in a “drift runner” vehicle, carrying compressed air breathing apparatus sets.
On the way, the roof is inspected – aided by real-time strata monitoring, sensors in the roof which detect movement of more than 3mm. Gas levels are checked. Intercoms and telephones up the drift are tested. The refuge chamber – sitting at 2008m – is inspected. (Another chamber will be needed when the workers inspect the rockfall, as there’ll be two teams of five people and an 11th person, a “fresh air base controller”.)
Given how far they’re into the drift, a pre-shift examination takes about 45 minutes, Pattinson says. “Out of a 10-hour day we might get, at a maximum, eight hours underground – on a good day.”
This cautious approach is exemplified in the re-entry ceremony held last year. The event, featuring Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, was held at the mine portal but the re-entry didn’t happen that day because of an unusual gas reading from an underground borehole. “We were 99 percent sure at the time that it was a leaking tube,” Pattinson says. “But until we proved that, which was about two weeks later, then we weren’t prepared to let people into that mine.”
On Tuesday this week, underground workers were withdrawn because of a faulty reading – of high methane, low oxygen, and extreme vacuum pressure – from a tube bundle sensor. Readings from other sensors were normal. Measurements in the offending tube returned to normal after it was blown with air and the readings cleared.
(Agency ventilation officer Borys Poborowski says methane levels are very low – below 0.1 percent – in accessible parts of the drift. Closer to the Rocsil plug, the highest concentration recorded in the last three months is 0.5 percent. Because of the nitrogen injection, only traces of methane can be found between the foam plug and the rockfall.)
Once a new area of the drift is inspected and declared safe, the workers carry out a full forensic examination. Pattinson: “A bit like what you see on TV in a crime scene, they’ll put tags and numbers by anything they want to recover, they’ll photograph it. They’ve all been trained in forensics. And when we’re doing forensics, the police are in the control room – always on the intercom system, always guiding us.
“We’re their hands down there, our arms are two kilometres long.”
It’s unclear if Police will enter the mine, but they are considering whether to do so to recover equipment from the pit bottom in stone. (Police were approached for comment but didn’t provide a statement attributable to a named spokesperson.)
The Pike River site, once remediated, is expected to be handed back to the Department of Conservation in April.
Tom Hopkins, director of the Pike River Mine transition project, says a design team for a memorial and interpretation centre should be engaged by early next year. Physical work should start in 2022 and finished the year after. The site will eventually link to the Paparoa Track via the 11km-long Pike 29 track. The work is estimated to total $3.1 million.
Ten years on from the Pike River disaster, how close are we to determining what caused the explosion? Minister Little says the most accurate conclusions will be drawn from instrumentation located at the pit bottom in stone area. “Recovering the various pieces of kit there is very important. That will help us give a better explanation.
“I know there are still competing views about some elements of what actually happened, what actually caused not just the first explosion but the second one as well. And I think for the benefit of the families we need to get the best possible information to put that to rest.”
Osborne describes the electrical substations at pit bottom in stone as “like a big black box”.
Once the information there is collected, Little says it’ll be up to police to decide what further action, if any, will be taken.
Whatever happens, and even if human remains aren’t found, Little maintains the Government will have fulfilled its promise to do everything it can to re-enter Pike River Mine and better understand what happened.
Osborne knows there wasn’t any mandate for the Recovery Agency to go further than rockfall but she would still dearly love to bring Milton home. She’s hoping one day, something, maybe a robot, will be able to enter the main mine workings.
But for now, she’s having to let some of that fight go.
Osborne is facing her own mortality, because of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I’ve been given timeframe of four years with my cancer so I want to make those four years count. I still want Pike to be a part of that and I still will be fighting to make sure everything happens the way it should, but I’m also going to give myself permission to start living and enjoying life again.”
She knows Milton would be immensely proud of what she and other Pike families have achieved over the last 10 years. “But he would also be saying, Anna, you need to get on with your life.”