Pike River Disaster: a decade of reparations and recovery

JP Casey 19 December 2019 (Last Updated January 15th, 2020 15:40)

In 2010, four methane gas explosions rocked the Pike River coal mine, killing 29 workers and triggering the worst mining accident in New Zealand for close to a century. In the decade since, the national government, police forces and safety specialists have worked to make the mine safe for manned re-entry, to search for the bodies of the victims, and provide closure for their families. We chart the responses and recovery over the last nine years.

Pike River Disaster: a decade of reparations and recovery
On 23 November 2010, the first of four explosions rocked the Pike River coal mine. Source Martina Janochova

November 2010: Four explosions and 29 deaths

On 23 November 2010, the first of four explosions rocked the Pike River coal mine on New Zealand’s South Island due to a build-up of methane gas. Of the 31 employees working underground at the time of the accident, just two were able to escape, with the remaining 29 miners trapped underground in the collapsing tunnels.

While rescue workers tried to pump a mixture of carbon dioxide, nitrogen gas and water vapour into the tunnels to expel oxygen that could trigger more explosions, the mine’s ventilation systems proved ineffective, and a further three explosions rocked the mine over the next five days, all but extinguishing hope of rescuing the trapped miners.

The 29 deaths made the incident the most deadly New Zealand mining accident since the deaths of 43 miners at Ralph’s coal mine in Huntley, North Island, when a naked lamp ignited methane in the tunnels, triggering explosions and fire.

December 2010: Pike River enters receivership

Less than a month after the accident, Pike River Coal, the company owning the mine of the same name, entered receivership, with coal production significantly disrupted by the incident. The miner had expected to scale up production to one million tonnes per annum by 2011, with around 18 million tonnes of coal able to be recovered from the Brunner coal deposit beneath the mine.

By March 2011, the company had resumed control of the mine, although it was tasked with overseeing mine stabilisation operations, rather than re-starting production. Since the bodies of those killed in the accident had not yet been recovered, Pike River Coal planned to introduce a stable atmosphere into the mine that would be separate from underground heat sources. Doing so would reduce the risk of future explosions from taking place, and enable rescue teams to enter the mine.

“However, there can be no assurance that the stabilisation plan will be successful,” said PricewaterhouseCoopers receiver John Fisk, highlighting the difficulties of stabilising the mine’s atmosphere. “Or, even if it is, whether other options such as an eventual re-entry to all or part of the mine will be feasible.”

March – October 2012: Government purchase and report publication

2012 saw two significant developments for the mine, beginning with the purchase of the operation by Solid Energy, a state-owned company that would work towards retrieving the bodies of the trapped miners.

Pike River Coal sold the mine in March for NZ$7.5m, considerably less than the NZ$400m the mine was valued at prior to the accident, and selected Solid Energy over interested parties from Australia, Asia and South America as the New Zealand firm were reportedly the only one to prioritise the recovery of the miners’ bodies over other plans for the mine.

In October, a royal commission established in the days following the accident to investigate its causes published its report, which pinpointed “a large methane explosion” as the primary cause of the incident. The report also claimed that Pike River Coal was largely responsible for the accident, noting that the firm “had not completed the systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal,” referring to a lack of adequate ventilation systems at the mine.

The report also noted that there were 48 reports of dangerously high levels of methane, 21 of which described potentially “explosive” levels, in the 48 days prior to the accident, but Pike River Coal continued with production regardless. Between the start of production in October 2008 and the accident in November 2010, the mine had only produced 42,000 tonnes of coal, significantly fewer than the million tonnes per annum targeted by Pike River Coal, a disappointing performance that encouraged the miner to continue production despite the health and safety warnings.

March 2013: Pike River Coal’s troubles continue

The following March, judge Jane Farish of the Greymouth District Court convicted the company of nine health and safety breaches in relation to the accident, with the findings of the royal commission’s report integral to the case.

“In this case there were fundamental breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act, which led to the unnecessary deaths of 29 men,” said Farish in her verdict. “Explosion is a well-known hazard in underground coal mining and such tragedies regularly take the lives of workers around the world.”

While the company did not contest the charges, its CEO, Peter Whittall, faced 12 separate charges for his role in the accident, which he denied. Unlike his company, he was not convicted, instead reaching an agreement to pay NZ$3.4m to the families affected by the tragedy, a move that angered many related to the victims, and did little to dispel a growing public image of Pike River Coal as a company more interested in profit than safety, and one ultimately unrepentant for its actions.

The entire episode serves as a cautionary tale both for the dangers of ignoring workplace safety warnings, but also of concentrating all of one’s mining assets in a single operation; Pike River Coal owned just a single mine, and so had to dramatically increase production, increasing the risk of an accident at the mine, to appease shareholders and turn a profit.

November 2017: Government commits to manned re-entry

Following the unsatisfying conclusion to the legal proceedings against the company, the families of the victims received significant positive news in November 2017, when Labour MP Andrew Little announced the formation of the Pike River Recovery Agency, which would be tasked with re-entering the mine. The agency began work the following January, and worked alongside police, with a government budget of NZ$23m to develop a plan for the manned re-entry of the mine.

The Pike River Recovery Agency also acquired total ownership of the mine in February 2018, following years of financial troubles for Solid Energy, which had entered administration in 2015. The move allowed the state-funded miner to enter liquidation, easing the financial burden on the state, while simultaneously giving the government greater direct control over the mine, enabling the agency to work on re-entry plans without interference.

November 2018: Re-entry plans finalised

The agency finalised re-entry plans in November 2018, following almost a year of consultation with a number of bodies, including the police and a 24-person panel of experts, which concluded that all three of the proposed re-entry plans had merit. The suggested plans included the drilling of a new tunnel to reach the trapped bodies, and entering through the mine’s original entrance, before drilling a separate exit tunnel for rescue workers; however, the agency ultimately decided to enter and exit the mine through its original passages and not drill any new tunnels.

The agency also constructed a nitrogen plant alongside the mine to vent trapped methane from the tunnels, to ensure that there would be no chance of another methane explosion as the rescue teams worked in the mine. The plans, which drove the cost of the re-entry operation up to NZ$36m, were then approved by two other panels of experts between October and November, and rescuers prepared to enter the mine in February 2019.

However, re-entry was delayed when atmospheric monitoring devices at the mine displayed what Little called “unexpected and unexplained readings”, which caused operations to be temporarily suspended. Unsafe atmospheric conditions had been the primary cause of the initial explosions, so the rescue teams were especially careful to avoid a repeat of these conditions ahead of re-entry.

May 2019: Re-entry and closure

Rescue workers re-entered the mine on 22 May 2019, after identifying and fixing the cause of the unusual atmospheric monitoring data: a leaking sampling tube that interfered with the mine’s oxygen supply. A team of three rescuers were able to reach a set of sealed doors 30m into the mine, watched by a number of members from the Pike River Recovery Agency and the Pike River Family Reference Group, a body representing the families of the 29 victims.

In October, a further 170m of the mine were opened up, following weeks of draining flooded weirs, and the expansion of the ventilation infrastructure built to enable workers to reach the doors at 30m. 26 relatives of the victims were able to enter the cleared area, their last opportunity to do so before workers begin opening up the remainder of the 2.3km-long tunnel. While the bodies of the victims are yet to be recovered, the opening of the mine is evidence of tangible progress for the rescue operation, and provides a sense of closure for the families of the victims.

“Watching those doors open and seeing the light enter that dark tunnel for the first time in years was incredibly emotional,” said Anna Osborne, a member of the Reference Group. “We’ve known we are going back in for a year now, today it feels like it.

“This is the start of a journey that will end with truth and justice.”