Pike River mine explosion kills 29

19 November 2010

Flames burst from a ventilation shaft at the Pike River mine (Iain McGregor/Getty Images)

The Pike River underground coal mine is located in the rugged Paparoa Range, on the West Coast of the South Island. The only access to the mine workings was through a 2.3-km-long tunnel that intersected with the Brunner coal seam.

At 3.45 p.m. on Friday 19 November 2010, the mine exploded. Twenty-nine men underground died immediately or soon afterwards from the blast or because of the toxic atmosphere this generated. Two men in the tunnel, some distance from the mine workings, managed to escape. Over the next nine days the mine exploded three more times before it was sealed.

In 2014 the National-led government accepted a decision by Solid Energy, the new owners of the mine, that ‘potentially fatal risk factors’ made it too dangerous to re-enter the mine to attempt to recover the bodies. The Labour-led government which took office in 2017 reversed this decision. The Pike River Recovery Agency expected to recover the tunnel as far as the roof fall at the end of the drift during 2020. By March 2020 the projected cost of doing so was $51 million, more than double the original budget.

This was the ninth major explosion in a New Zealand underground coal mine, in which a total of 211 men have lost their lives. All the deaths resulted from the explosion of the methane gas which is constantly given off by coal, or through asphyxiation by carbon monoxide and other gases formed after a fire or explosion.

As with most coal mine disasters, the Pike River tragedy would not have happened if established safety procedures had been followed. The mine was new, and the owner, Pike River Coal Ltd, had not completed the systems and infrastructure needed to produce coal safely. The company had borrowed heavily, and with great pressure to get mining under way, numerous warnings of potentially hazardous methane levels were not heeded. The safety inspectors employed by the Department of Labour relied on reports by the company that all safety requirements were being complied with.

The resulting Commission of Inquiry was highly critical of the company’s management as well as of the lack of safety inspections. One of its major recommendations was that the government should set up an independent organisation with specific responsibility for workplace safety. This recommendation was accepted, and Worksafe New Zealand now has statutory responsibility for all safety issues in the workplace, with a designated High Hazards Unit covering industries such as coal mining and oil exploration.

By Simon Nathan

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