Any Royal Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy at the Pike River coal mine must look at whether the coal mine should have been given the go ahead in the first place.

As pointed out in previous post, experienced geologist Murry Cave, a consultant to the Ministry of Conservation (2000-2004 ) warned about the presence of an active fault and the danger of gas explosions (outburst).

He said there was a pit bottom with 'deep highly gassy coals 'and the associated risk of 'outburst'.

His comments have recently been reinforced by University of Canterbury engineering and mining geologist David Bell. He has said that the 'Hawera Fault zone' running through the mine shaft allowed pockets of methane gas to build up

Both PRC's John Dow and Peter Whittall strongly rejected Cave's views.

PRC chairman John Dow flatly denied there was an active fault rock. This appears to be incorrect because the Hawera Fault is a strand of the larger and active Alpine fault.

Similarly Peter Whittall claimed in a letter to the Greymouth Evening Star in May 2007 characterised the conditions at Pike River as 'shallow, moderately gassy, non-outburst prone.'

It is likely that the disaster was caused by a power failure that disabled the mines’ ventilation system. Since the mine extracts coal from close to the Hawera fault line, conditions would have quickly deteriorated.

Despite the fact that there have now been four explosions at the mine Whittall is sticking to his view that the mine is 'moderately gassy'

He told TVNZ's Q+A on Sunday:

'It was a moderately gassy mine. It had quite a range of gas, from virtually nothing on the escarpment, obviously, to the west - it's bled off over many thousands of years - to still low levels about more than half the lease, but it was quite gassy, I would say moderately gassy, on the eastern side of the lease, which is the first part that we're mining.'

But Andrew Watson, the operations manager of the United Kingdom Mines Rescue Operations recently told the New Zealand Herald that methane levels had to have reached 5 to 15 percent of the atmosphere for an explosion to occur. He pointed out work in British mines stopped once methane levels reached just 1.25 percent, and miners were evacuated once levels reached 2 percent.

It's PRC's apparent confidence about the geological conditions and safety standards at the mine that surely have contributed to Whittall declaring that 'There's absolutely no reason why that mine … can't be safe after an absolutely tragic and fatal event.''

This is an extraordinary statement for Whittall to have made given what we have learned about conditions at Pike River. That he has got away with comments like this highlights the fact that the media have given him an easy ride throughout the course of this tragedy.

Indeed the media and politicians alike have been lining up to praise Whittall for his 'leadership' and 'compassion'.

However all bets are off until the Royal Commission of Inquiry releases its report and recommendations and this could be up to a year away.

The Prime Minister, after initially declaring that New Zealand mines were 'safe' has now said that the future of 'underground mining' is now under scrutiny.

But any measures taken against PRC and the mining industry generally would fly in the face of of the National Government's so-called export-led economic recovery - which includes the mining of non-renewable and environmentally damaging fossil fuels.

And Labour is not blameless either.

in 2007 Labour's Phil Goff was enthusiastically talking about Pike River Coal and Solid Energy wanting 'to supply coal to fire steel production in China and other growth economies.'

It was a Labour Government that shelved a 2008 report into mine safety by the Department of Labour. It recommended that safety check inspectors be reintroduced - one of several recoommendations Labour ignored.

In 2007 Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn celebrated the prospect that: “Private mining is coming back – it’s good to see the emergence of private companies on the West Coast”

In recent days Kokshoorn has said that he wants to see the mine re-open.

West Coast-Tasman MP Chris Auchinvole has also said that he wants to see the mine reopen as soon as it was 'appropriate' because it was important part of the West Coast economy.

'The coal seam is still there. Coal is extremely valuable and the Pike River mine is a $300 million-plus investment.'

There are likely to be some powerful corporate and political considerations brought to bear on the Royal Commission not to reach conclusions that may be 'detrimental' to either PRC or the wider mining industry.


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