Conservation concerns not to blame for tragedy

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.

49 thoughts on “Conservation concerns not to blame for tragedy

  1. Thanks Kevin.

    It is a not surprising that wanna-be environmental vandals like Ian Wishart, Matthew Hooton, Cameron Slater and some libertarian idiot I had never heard of before called Mark Hubbard have been trying to capitalise on this tragedy for political point scoring in support of open cast mining.

    That Paul Holmes would also go down the path of questioning whether the mine should be open cast surprises and disappoints me.

    Surely, even minimal research would have shown Holmes that, regardless of conservation and environmental issues, open cast mining is totally unviable financially if you have to remove rock to a depth of 160m over several square kilometres before you even get to the coal.

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  2. Nandor goes on the offensive and blames the coal corporations:

    Pike River – the hard coaled facts By Nandor Tanczos

    The bodies of the Pike River miners haven’t even been recovered yet and the industry PR has begun. Days before John Key’s announcement of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster, the Chief Executive of the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce was on National Radio talking up the economic benefits of coal mining for the West Coast. On the same day the Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn was saying that business at Pike River needs to continue. Commendably Pike River Coal itself was more circumspect, saying that the focus for now is the families.

    The real destruction from continued coal mining, though, will be the deaths it causes outside the mines rather than inside them. As the world meets this week in Cancun to have another go at trying to avert a climatic disaster, there is growing concern about feedback loops such as the methane from thawing Siberian permafrost. The other big concern is the impact that coal is having on the climate – especially as the reality of peak oil hits home.

    Let’s be blunt – it is time to end the coal industry. It is important that we properly acknowledge the deaths of the 29 men at Pike River, but in the end there is a bigger question to be decided than mine safety.

    (shortened article go to link for full)
    http://www.3news.co.nz/Pike-River—the-hard-coaled-facts/tabid/1341/articleID/188481/Default.aspx

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  3. Excellent post Kevin, who would have thought that the greens would become the best hope of coal miners to have their concerns aired.
    It is a credit to the greens for seeing the human aspect to this as of primary importance, and leaving other issues to be argued at a more appropriate time.

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  4. “Pike River – the hard coaled facts By Nandor Tanczos”

    Nandor is a shameless and uninformed opportunist. Pike produces ultra-high quality coking coal used for the production of steel, not thermal coal for electricity. If you don’t have industrial scale steel production, then all your nice carbon-reducing infrastructure won’t happen, not to mention the whole economy collapsing.

    Who else is ashamed of Nandor for this distasteful opportunism?

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  5. There are two other questions not addressed by the above:
    (A) Fran O’Sullivan in this article
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10690315
    “the story also noted that engineers had no drill hole information when costing and planning the road. The company had drilled the 2.5km mine tunnel through an area it had virtually no information about because getting access for bore holes was too hard.”

    (b) Wikipedia notes that Pike River has been in development since the 1970s. The national park was not formally gazetted until 1987. What process was used to acquire the land for the national park and what assurances were given to Pike River at the time (given the Crown has virtually limitless powers to acquire land)

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  6. The coal is probably to make steel to make cars for India. How much NZ steel is used for clean energy components Borat? It is not as simple as exporting coal to Asia = coking coal put to good use.

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  7. @Borat 7:02 PM

    If you don’t have industrial scale steel production, then all your nice carbon-reducing infrastructure won’t happen, not to mention the whole economy collapsing.

    Agreed, to the extent that unless/until we find a way of making steel without requiring anthracite, that is a reality.

    As a Green I accept appropriate anthracite mining as an economic necessity, unlike the dirty lignite proposals Solid Energy has for Southland, which are far from an economic necessity given viable renewable energy sources. That crap should stay in the ground.

    But there needs to be some controls on anthracite mining too, despite its necessity in steel manufacture.

    One has to be that the coal seam methane emissions to the atmosphere outside the mine are kept to acceptable levels, given that methane has a greenhouse effect of over 4 times that of the carbon dioxide it is oxidised to when burned. Harvesting it is a good look if the technology exists, because burning coal seam emission methane as a fuel rather than putting it into the atmosphere actually helps to negate the greenhouse effect.

    The second is that the methane levels in the atmosphere within the mine don’t build to explosive levels that endanger the lives of the miners and the commercial viability of the mine.

    Somehow, and I hope we will eventually find out how, and with that knowledge will ensure it will never happen again, that went seriously wrong at Pike River.

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  8. Miners have been dying in similar ways since way before there was any concept of conservation.

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  9. @Shunda barunda 6:26 PM

    Hey, Shunda, thanks for your 6:30 pm comment at Kiwiblog.

    Some things cross the party divides, and this is one of them.

    I’m pleased for you that there has not been any Pavlovian adverse response to your supporting a Green MP in the KB comments thread (at least yet).

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  10. Nandor goes on the offensive and blames the coal corporations:

    trees, Nandor barely mentioned coal corporations and certainly hasn’t blamed PRC. What he’s saying is that our society allows such a cost to obtain coal and needs to look at what it allows and doesn’t allow in the future. The time for digging up and burning coal is past.

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  11. Isn’t it interesting how the Greens get blamed for the forest fires in Australia http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1141420/Greens-blame-Australias-savage-bushfires.html and now Paul Holmes and others are claiming that environmentalists forced the Pike River Mine underground to save snails.

    I wonder how many more Myths will be created as election year looms and the Greens become even more credible as National’s policies flounder……

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  12. Hooton is feeding the blame the Greens line – NBR last week, in concert with Whitehead looking for the RMA to be eased etc, the sacrificing the environment for growth line.

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  13. Reading David Grant’s Ken Douglas biography; as Ken became more credible and effective the SUP became the cause of all things bad in New Zealand. The SUP no longer exists and now the Greens are in the firing line for the audacity of speaking sense and putting people and the environment before corporate profit. In reality the SUP was never a political force, but the Greens are, so it will be interesting how far Matthew Hooten and others will go to discredit us.

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  14. sprout – the lack of decreasing fuel load in recent years (buring off) was one of the major reasons the Aussie bushfires were worse.

    A guy I worked with bought a property outside Melbourne and it had a 10m deep gully that was nearly completely full of fuel (euccalyptus branches, leaves, bark). It was incredibly dangerous becuase burning off hadn’t been done your years.

    However Pike River was only ever feasible as an underground mine, irrelevant of it’s position under conservation estate. It would never have been open cast.

    As for Nandors call to shut coal mining down – was he just using the disaster to politic? What will he use to build wind turbines, power pylons, heat pumps, buses, bicycles, trains and railways etc if there is no coal to make steel.

    And if you are going to use coal to make steel, should you not use the world’s best coal from Pike River, that has the lowest ash emmisions of any coal in the world, is up to 50% more efficient than some other coals and has some of the lowest carbon emmisions?

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  15. The Greens, Labour, DOC, Greenpeace and others lobbied to put the environment at the top at the expense of safety at this mine.

    To say otherwise is to be misleading at best.

    Go and read Hansard and find out.

    [frog: Note Shunda barunda's and Toad's responses below, Darren. There are a few past commenters on my "banned" list for making malicious and unsubstantiated allegations. Be warned.]

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  16. The same sort of pressure from the green lobby in Australia led to the deaths of more people than necessary in forest fires a couple of years ago because residents were not allowed to cut down trees for fire breaks.

    One guy (who is alive and has an intact house) is being prosecuted for cutting down his trees.

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  17. The Greens, Labour, DOC, Greenpeace and others lobbied to put the environment at the top at the expense of safety at this mine.

    If the mine would never have been open cast and the exit shafts weren’t the issue, then what could have made this mine more safe that wasn’t allowed?

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  18. As for Nandors call to shut coal mining down – was he just using the disaster to politic?

    How long do commentators have to wait to comment on this? And are you on the right wing blogs telling them not to speak about it too?

    What will he use to build wind turbines, power pylons, heat pumps, buses, bicycles, trains and railways etc if there is no coal to make steel.

    This argument only holds once we’ve decided to only dig up what coal is needed to produce a renewable energy infrastructure. So long as the goal is to get our hands on any coal in reach so as to increase GDP, it’s just a straw man.

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  19. Valis – Nador – if the quote is correct, called for an end to coal mining.

    Which effectively is the same as calling for an end to steel.

    Phil says “pike river coal…

    ‘it’s heroin..but really high quality heroin’…”

    What a nonsense.

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  20. The Greens, Labour, DOC, Greenpeace and others lobbied to put the environment at the top at the expense of safety at this mine.

    To say otherwise is to be misleading at best.

    No it isn’t, but your opinion is completely illogical at best.
    Pike river never raised any concerns that environmental issues were affecting mine safety, for your opinion to be correct it would mean Pike River management were deliberately misleading the public and worse, their staff.

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  21. Saying it again, because it seems it was missed.

    There was always a way to mine the coal safely. Sealing the mine and making the atmosphere inert, and the miners each have breathing apparatus and/or breathable air pumped in to each miner, and to the equipment used, and in sealed chambers inside the mine with air-locks.

    Think of it as an “underwater” mine without the pressure problems.

    This is a more expensive method to be sure, but it is also the only way other than the open cast, to mine a gas-laden mine like this one without risk of explosion.

    BJ

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  22. “..Phil says “pike river coal…

    ‘it’s heroin..but really high quality heroin’…”

    What a nonsense…”

    what don’t you ‘get’..?

    both are really bad for us….we are addicted to both..

    …and the exemption from that labelling…for pike river..

    …is ‘cos of high quality ‘product’..

    ..that is the ‘nonsense’…

    ..eh..?

    phil(whoar.co.nz)

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  23. and so the blame game begins… surely it would be better putting this energy into trying to ensure that the industry learns from this & then moves on. Kia-ora

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  24. @Darren Rickard 7:45 AM

    The Greens, Labour, DOC, Greenpeace and others lobbied to put the environment at the top at the expense of safety at this mine… Go and read Hansard and find out.

    What utter crap! The Greens would never compromise workplace safety for any other concern. I would suggest that if you want to make allegations of that sort you should at least link to some material from Hansard to back it up. But you don’t, because you know there isn’t any.

    Stop being a troll.

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  25. BJ. Having worked in breathing apparatus for brief periods it is not something you can do for a whole day.
    Firemen, who are very fit people, are rotated about half hourly.

    One of the reasons why a rescue, 2 km in, using BA would have been very difficult.

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  26. I’m sure the issue or what (if any) impact on safety and/or recoverability related to environmental concerns will be fully and frankly explored by the commission of enquiry, and anything argued prior to that is just hot air.

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  27. OK… MUCH more expensive… and I wouldn’t want to have to have the breathing mask that sort of time myself.

    However, I can also imagine rather different arrangements. A cab on a vehicle in which one can breath. Vehicles we haven’t seen yet that could allow people to function down there.

    It isn’t an unsolvable problem for Engineering, merely unsolved at present.

    BJ

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  28. To clarify: the greens position is that Lignite should not be mined, it is low grade and not for steel. High grade carbon fibre etc made from west coast coal, that can be used for windmill parts, is very different from low grade Brown Coal Lignite, which is what 80% of NZs coal is. The greens are open to some coal mining for specialist niche use. Not coal for energy.

    Jeanette recently wrote this:
    http://blog.greens.org.nz/2010/11/03/jeanette-says-we-must-keep-the-coal-in-the-ground/

    Jeanette Fitzsimons has announced a six-point plan to effectively shut down NZ’s coal industry, which includes converting Solid Energy into a renewable energy company and closing the Huntly Power Station. http://nzenergy-environment.co.nz/home/free-articles/greens-want-to-close-down-nzs-coal-industry.html

    She suggested a change in direction for SOE Solid Energy too:

    Fitzsimons believes Solid Energy should cease investigations into converting Southland lignite to liquid fuels and instead focus on becoming a renewable energy company, building especially on its expertise in waste wood. She notes Solid Energy has recently invested in a wood pellet and wood stove business, as well as a solar water heating business, and is also producing bio-diesel from rape seed.

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  29. No coal doesn’t mean no steel. Direct reduction by natural gas followed by electric arc furnaces can supply at least some of our steel:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_arc_furnace

    I’d reckon recycling could supply about 90% of our needs – steel is about the most recyclable material in existence.

    “That Paul Holmes would also go down the path of questioning whether the mine should be open cast surprises and disappoints me.”

    Paul Holmes being uninformed, biased and sensational surprises you? I’m surprised.

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  30. Holmes is the one “just using the disaster to politic”. Doesn’t even have to be true as I’m sure he knew.

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  31. @Sam Buchanan 10:31 AM

    Paul Holmes being uninformed, biased and sensational surprises you?

    Only slightly, Sam. My take on it is that he is less consistently uninformed, biased and sensational than Wishart, Hooton and Slater are.

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  32. It is a bit rich blaming the Green lobby for bush fires.
    As part of the Green lobby. I was living in Victoria for a while. Many Greens were advocating controlled burns in fire climax forest combined with bans on housing in dangerous areas.
    When fuel had built up to dangerous levels there were too many houses up there to have burnoffs safely.
    People are still rebuilding in places where there should be no housing. With wooden shingles, because they look cute.

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  33. Kerry, I’ll just briefly carry on with the off topic tangent, and then leave it – I suspect that the problem in Australia wasn’t so much with the “Greens” who have the view that you mentioned as with the “greens” who populated councils in the affected areas and didn’t want to do anything to harm the “pretty” area.

    Heading back on topic, someone that I know who used to be a Health and Safety officer at a coal mine in New Zealand (he now lives in Australia), suspects that some corners might have been cut by Pike River. I wait and see, and I don’t think that the time is right to engage in blame games.

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  34. [frog: Comment deleted - if you are going to make malicious ideologically inspired allegations like that, Darren, then cite and preferably link to some evidence to support them. You were warned earlier.]

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  35. “The Greens, Labour, DOC, Greenpeace and others lobbied to put the environment at the top at the expense of safety at this mine.”

    Does anybody actually know of any environmental lobbying that affected this mine? I was following mining issues at the time Pike River was planned and can’t recall any suggestion of an open cast mine, nor any environmental outcry – the issue of concern for environmentalists at the time was the proposed open cast mine at Happy Valley(I think about three people held a general anti coal-mining banner up in Greymouth at one point, but I don’t really think that had any effect on the mine).

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  36. Essentially some people were campaigning against the proposed Cypress Mine @ Happy Valley and not much attention was on Pike. No campaign was set up. Pike River Coal was nominated for a Roger Award one year, which it did not win.

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  37. BJ – the idea of operating an inert mine is interesting, but the access tunnel doesn’t have to be inert. Only that part of the mine emitting methane needs to be inert, so the air lock can be 2km in, and the access to it can be ventilated using normal air (and plenty of it) – assuming that it has been dug through rock rather than coal.

    Trevor.

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  38. Owen mentioned redundancy. If the mine was totally dependent on ventilation for safety and was likely to explode if the ventilation stopped, then I would expect about three independent ventilation systems with at least one able to run during a power outage using on-site generation. This is in addition to the safety air feeds available at certain positions in the mine.

    Trevor.

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  39. In that p[icture of the trrashed ventilation thing, there are two big yellow rectangular boxes on the patform, and I’ve been musing if they were gensets; they are of the right proportions…

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  40. Darren Rickard says “The same sort of pressure from the green lobby in Australia led to the deaths of more people than necessary in forest fires a couple of years ago because residents were not allowed to cut down trees for fire breaks.”

    True. More because of burning off and reducing fuel loads was significantly reduced, rather than because of fire breaks.

    However it’s up to authorities to resist presure and put public safety first.

    Darren Rickard says “The Greens, Labour, DOC, Greenpeace and others lobbied to put the environment at the top at the expense of safety at this mine.”

    This is rubbish, and is little more than politicking off the tragedy.

    Besides, the likes of the Greens should campaign for the environment, particularly National Parks.

    It’s the responsibility of the mining company and the govt to ensure that if they do go ahead with mines then that can be done in a safe manner within any environmental restrictions. And if they can’t do that, they shouldn’t go ahead.

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  41. It was not the Greens who stopped burning off in Victoria. I was there for a while.
    Greens opposed houses in dangerous areas.
    Local residents, councils and developers advocated building any way. Controlled burnoffs became impossible due to the large number of houses in the bush.
    Without burnoffs in fire climax forests the fuel load gets too great and the trees as well as residents die.

    The mining company obviously thought they could mine with adequate safety within the DOC rules. It is up to the mine safety people and the mining company to decide if they can work within the rules not the responsibility of DOC or the Greens.

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  42. Kerry – over many years there was a lot of presure from envrironmentalists to stop fuel load reductions (burnoffs).

    The Royal Commission found burn off levels were significantly below what was thought the safe level for fuel loadings, AND noted that enquiry after enquiry had been stating exactly this over many years.

    For example people in the Kinglake area had been fined for clearing firebreaks and had been fined even for removing dead wood. There had been no controlled burnoffs withing 3-5 km of the town since 1981.

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  43. Photo. The pressure was not from environmentalists. it was from local residents pretending to be. Bit of selective cherry picking by the OZ media after the fires there. Same as we are getting here over Pike River.

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  44. Kerry says “The pressure was not from environmentalists. it was from local residents pretending to be. ”

    So the people who didn’t want fuel load reduction through burn offs because of pollution just pretendted to be environmentalists, acted like environmentalists, campaigngned like environmentalists, had issues the same as environmentalists, formed environmentalists groups, or were already part of envirnonmental groups – but it was all a con?

    Yeah right.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, environmentalists have every right to do that, but councils (and everyone on councils including environmentalists) have the obligation to balance environmental concerns against safety of people when report after report over many years says lack of buring off fuel loads is causing extreme danger to people.

    And if they do nothing when given such repeated warnings, they should be held legally responsible for any deaths because of their actions, or lack of action.

    Because that would be little dfifferent to a coal company doing nothing when repeatedly told there were severe safety concerns (not saying that happened at Pike River).

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  45. Pike River Coal Ltd demand that their layers are present during questioning of witnesses. Not the normal thing to do in a Royal Commission of Inquiry, I wonder if there’s something to hide. Intimidation lane, here we come.

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