Kevin Hague

Conservation concerns not to blame for tragedy

by Kevin Hague

We have been supporting the Government’s decision to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate both the immediate causes of the Pike River disaster and wider systemic issues that may also have been contributors, and are particularly pleased that the terms of reference have been cast sufficiently broadly. The other suggestions we have made are largely about process:  

  •  The Commission should include someone who is nominated by workers, so that those who work in underground mines, both now and in the future, can be confident that their interests have been taken fully into account, and so the Commission’s work has a reality check: what actually happens isn’t necessarily the same as what should happen or what is recorded;  
  • The Commission must provide an opportunity for the families of the men killed in this disaster to have a say. Having their voices heard may well be important for their grieving, but they also may well have information and evidence that others don’t about the mine. We were pleased to hear that the Government will provide support so that families can present to the Commission; 
  • The Commission’s outputs need to reflect two levels. If it’s possible to reach conclusions about the immediate causes of the disaster first, then release of these findings as soon as possible will be most helpful for the grieving families, provided that this does not weaken or compromise the broader analysis of any systemic problems.

The Government has done pretty well so far in responding to this tragedy, and we hope that will continue with a Royal Commission that is best set up to accomplish its mission.  

On the other hand the blame game has started, with some people, either through ignorance or malice, trying to pin responsibility for the disaster onto conservationists generally, and the Green Party specifically in some cases. It’s understandable that people will be looking for quick and simple answers and casting around for someone to blame. But some of what I’ve heard so far has been both ignorant and offensive.

Myth 1: Because of concerns about conservation, PRC was forced to use underground mining techniques, rather than open-casting, which was their first choice (and much safer).

Peter Whittall and other commentators have been making the point pretty strongly that open cast mining was never an option or considered in this location. The Brunner coal seam runs underneath the Paparoa mountain range. In contrast to areas further up the Coast (like Stockton) where the seam lies near the surface, making open cast mining viable, the Brunner seam lies a long way below the surface. Even though the seam is 7m wide (quite big) removal of more than 150m of ‘overburden’ to get to it is not viable at all.

Myth 2: There would have been a second ventilation/emergency exit shaft, except that it was not dug because a single blue duck was sighted at the location.

This is also completely false. So far, Pike River Coal has applied for 1 ventilation shaft and 4 emergency exit shafts. All applications have been approved. The ventilation shaft is now operating. None of the emergency exit shafts have yet been dug because, according to the company, the extent of the mine is not yet large enough. There are no outstanding applications, although in PRC’s work plan for the year they indicated an intent to apply for another emergency exit shaft, which might also have a ventilator fan. Incidentally, the Blue Duck habitat is nowhere near where the exit shafts would emerge when built.

Of course there are differences of values and beliefs between miners and conservationists (and environmentalists, given coal), but those differences have played no role in this tragedy.

Published in Economy, Work, & Welfare | Environment & Resource Management by Kevin Hague on Mon, November 29th, 2010   

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