Monday, November 25, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“TRAGEDY AT PIKE RIVER MINE” by Rebecca Macfie  (Awa Press $NZ40)

            People often talk about where they were at the time some tragedy broke. Where were you when JFK was assassinated? Where were you when the Erebus flight went missing? That sort of thing.

As it happens, I can remember exactly where I was when the Pike River mining disaster happened, on 19 November 2010. I am not a journalist, but I happened to be in a bar in Auckland with a bunch of journos who were celebrating a sort of very early pre-Christmas party. Being journos they were jocular and jokey and getting a little raucous. But halfway through the fun, one of their colleagues came in and said he’d just heard a radio report that about 30 miners had died in a mine explosion in the South Island. The conversation slowed down. The jokes died. There was incredulity. The journalists knew a big story when they heard it. There were questions about where the hell this Pike River place was anyway.

The mood became very sombre.

Somebody ran off to get more information. When he came back, the story was confirmed. The party broke up early as the news people rushed off to find out more, to get their marching orders from editors and to file stories. Only a few of us were left, shaking our heads and wondering how this sort of thing could happen in this day and age when Health and Safety was supposed to be over everything.

And that, really, is what much of the country has been wondering for the last three years.

How could a modern coalmine, monitored by the best modern equipment, subject to laws about safety, and touted as the economic salvation of the West Coast, kill 29 miners in one single day?

Listener journalist Rebecca Macfie’s Tragedy at Pike River Mine answers all these questions and raises some more. In her Prologue, Macfie gives a vignette of the miners Russell Smith and Dan Rockhouse staggering out of the blighted mine, having been able to make it the surface only because they were nearest to the sole exit. They waited for some sign of miners following them, but there were none. Their 29 colleagues were dead and burnt, although it took days for families and relatives to understand this, especially as company spokespeople kept holding out false hopes.

Macfie lays her cards on the table in her opening Author’s Note:

Pike had understated its most critical risk – methane gas – and had repeatedly failed to meet its own grandiose forecasts. Far from being the showcase of modern mining it had branded itself as, the project had lurched from one major setback to the next throughout its short history. It seemed that virtually everything that could have gone wrong in the development of the mine had gone wrong; and then, with coal extraction barely started, it exploded. I formed the view that the disaster was not an ‘accident’, but rather a corporate failure of the worst order.” (p.2)

In effect, Tragedy at Pike River Mine tells us that the disaster was the outcome of very bad decisions by management, of wilful ignoring of safety precautions, and of a rush to put profits over people.

The mine was constructed on the basis of insufficient geological surveys. Repeatedly, responsible geologists (like Canterbury’s Jane Newman) had said the project was not viable, that too few boreholes had been drilled to sample terrain, and that the coal seam under the Paparoa Mountains was gassy and dangerous. But the project was “talked up” by its promoters in a rush to cash in on the maximum world prices that were then being paid for coking coal. Once actual work began on the site, it was clear that the terrain was far more perilous than the Pike River Company’s own selective and superficial geological reports had suggested:

It was obvious from the moment that the first round of explosives was detonated in September 2006 that the ground conditions were terrible. Rather than the hard, self-supporting rock that had been anticipated, it was, as [a contractor] describes it, ‘rotten’ – broken, crumbly and wet…” (p.66)

Setbacks in developing the mine meant more loans and borrowing, to the tune of many millions of dollars. This is turn promoted a mentality, which said that the project couldn’t be allowed to fail, even though the prospect of mining coal successfully was repeatedly postponed:

The mishaps and misadventures of Pike River Coal Ltd were pushing the price tag on the project higher and higher, and shunting the prospect of revenue from coal sales further and further into the future.” (p.83)

It took two years of work, from 2006 to 2008, before coal was actually struck. There were frequent gas ignitions sparked by drilling equipment and not adequately reported by a company eager to present itself as a model of ‘best practice”. Warnings of inadequate safety features were routinely ignored. Among other things, the mine was constructed as a single-entry mine, meaning there was no alternative exit for miners in case of cave-in, explosion or other accident. There was never sufficient ventilation for the dispersal of methane gas. The first (and only) ventilation shaft collapsed before the mine was in production. It was rebuilt, but was a cause for concern expressed by Trevor Watts (manager of the Mines Rescue Service) who noted that, in the event of a major gas ignition:

 “any smoke and fumes in the mine would travel straight up the ventilation shaft, the very route the workers would be trying to use to escape. It would be like trying to escape a house fire by climbing out the chimney. And in any case the ladder could take only eight people at a time, yet there might be as many as sixty people underground on any given day.” (p.113)

Elsewhere Rebecca Macfie reports:

Everyone at the mine knew the 111-metre shaft was an exhausting and demanding climb – exceptionally difficult for a fit man, and almost certainly impossible for any worker wearing breathing apparatus while fleeing an emergency.” (p.158)

One conscientious shift supervisor, Dene Murphy:

 “worried constantly about gas, and about the fact Pike had never appointed a manager whose sole duty was overseeing the mine’s ventilation. In Queensland and New South Wales, mines were legally obliged to have a dedicated ventilation engineer, but in New Zealand the law was silent on the matter. Even though Pike’s own internal documents stipulated that it would have a permanent ventilation engineer, such a person was never appointed.” (p.124)

Hanging over many of these gross breaches of good safety standards is the shadow of a general deregulation of workplaces, when successive New Zealand governments rushed to build a monetarist economy in which profits and business success came before the welfare of the workforce.

Pike River Coal Ltd was very good at making its operation look, to uninformed outsiders, like a state-of-the-art operation, including the best safety features:

In the control room, which was elaborately decked out with computer screens, workers were adrift in a sea of poorly performing technology. Barry McIntosh, the experienced Southland miner who had been entranced with Pike’s pristine environment and modern equipment when he first arrived in 2008, was one of those deployed to the control room, but he and his colleagues were not trained in the monitoring system they were employed to oversee. No standard operating procedures setting out the response to gas alarms had been developed. By October 2010 a document had been drafted, but it relied on controls – such as a ventilation officer, an underground text messaging service, and a gas alarm logbook – that either didn’t exist or hadn’t yet been put into effect.” (p.155)

Many left the Pike River Company before the project went into production either because of safety issues or because they knew the mine would never yield much usable coal anyway. In the weeks just before the lethal explosion:

Pike River was awash with information foretelling catastrophe, but all those who had the power to act on the warning signs were deaf and blind to them. Vital information lay fallow on desks and in files, and pleas from men at the coalface for action and improvements went unheard and unanswered.” (p.178)

The company’s own declared policy on safety standards was not enforced, and when work crews showed their anxiety about frequent methane ignitions, they were either ignored or their written reports were (literally) thrown away.

Macfie’s book is primarily concerned with explaining why a disaster happened. Her narrative account of the explosion and its aftermath begins three-quarters of the way through her text - on Page 183 of 244 pages. She makes good on her prefatory statement that this  “was not an ‘accident’, but rather a corporate failure of the worst order.” There is no conspiracy theory here. This is a story of wilful negligence by people in pursuit of profits. It is well documented. Whenever Macfie mentions a report that was filed but ignored, a warning that was shrugged off by management, she is able to source and cite it. Tragedy at Pike River Mine is the result of extensive interviews Macfie held and of her covering the various trials that have taken place since the disaster.

Some of her pen portraits are damning. The image of Gordon Ward, the accountant who pushed the project of mining at Pike River, is not a flattering one. But the book’s most nuanced portrait is of Peter Whittall, the operations manager of Pike River Coal who became the company’s most visible representative after the explosion happened. He is introduced into the book as:

 “a rotund and charming Australian named Peter Whittall….[ those who chose him for the job] judged him to be a ‘stand-up guy. His experience was excellent. His understanding and approach to safety was an important part of why he got the job.’ ” (p.35)

Later he is presented thus:

Whittall … was the undisputed boss of the project. Some… admired his decisiveness, organisation and intelligence, and found him compassionate and thoughtful towards any office staff faced with personal difficulties. Others, such as safety and training manager Neville Rockhouse, thought him a micro-manager who failed to support Rockhouse’s efforts to implement the health and safety documentation he was creating.” (p.93)

Later still, there is a strong sense of his having misled grieving relatives and the press about the scale of the tragedy, and allowing false hopes to develop in the five days when it was still thought possible to mount a rescue mission. (Pike River Mine exploded three more times after the fatal explosion of 19 November 2010).

This book is the best sort of journalism – methodical, well-researched and dispassionate. But you can feel its cold anger and by the end you’re shocked to be reminded that the company, now bankrupt, has managed to dodge paying out any compensation to the families of the lost miners.

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