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The New Zealand Government has finalised plans to re-enter the Pike River mine, located on the west coast of the country’s South Island, to recover the bodies of 29 miners who were killed in an explosion in 2010.

Following their victory in the 2017 general election, the Labour party pledged to re-enter the coal mine, which had remained sealed since the accident. A new office, the Minister Responsible for Pike River Re-entry, was created and its incumbent, Andrew Little, announced the re-entry plans earlier today.

“Re-entry of the Pike River Mine will proceed,” said Little. “To the Pike River families, to New Zealand, we are returning.”

“I’ve been considering the re-entry recommendations, risk assessments and information provided by the Pike River Recovery Agency, along with input from independent advisor, Rob Fyfe. The re-entry method I have approved is the simplest and safest plan.”

Little said that rescue workers would use the mine’s existing access tunnel to reach the bodies of the workers.

The decision comes after months of consideration, including the work of a 24-person panel in September, which concluded that three different entry methods all had merit.

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One alternative method required the drilling of a new tunnel to provide access to the mine and ventilation to rescue workers, while another involved rescuers using the mine’s original tunnel, but alongside a narrower parallel tunnel that could function as an escape route in an emergency.

The panel, which featured members from New Zealand’s police departments, representatives from WorkSafe, mine rescue specialists, government ministers and the families of the 29 victims, ultimately decided to use the existing tunnel.

A nitrogen plant has been built alongside the mine to vent methane gas from the mine, and will begin operation ahead of the rescue, which is scheduled to begin in February 2019.

The operation is expected to cost NZD36m, slightly more than the NZD23m allocated for the project in the government’s budget.

“Work to prepare the mine drift for re-entry is underway, and includes venting methane from the mine, pumping nitrogen into the mine, and then filling the drift with fresh air,” said Little. “Additional boreholes have to be drilled and this work will get under way immediately.”