Pike River Blast: New Revelations


The Government’s Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River disaster will get underway soon, but already evidence is emerging that financial pressures may have encouraged some of the miners to take safety shortcuts that the mine management failed to detect. IAN WISHART has the exclusive story

Few people will forget where they were the afternoon that news broke of a major explosion in New Zealand’s biggest underground coal mine. Like the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing or the death of Princess Diana, the blast that silently consumed 29 miners on November 19 – unheard on the surface – nonetheless sent its shockwaves through the hearts of virtually every New Zealander.

In schools nationwide, children would later stand in two minutes’ stark silence in remembrance of the lost. Across the country, we all saw footage of the memorial service.

It’s been nearly two generations since New Zealand suffered a comparable mining tragedy, in the nearby Strongman tunnels in 1967. For 43 years, miners have worked with a belief that modern technology had largely solved the problems of the past and eliminated much of the risk. But there’s an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt, and what Investigate has found raises questions about the kind of shortcuts all of us take when we become complacent in our work or home environment.

One of the mysteries about the tragedy is the contradiction between Pike River Coal assurances that gas levels were ordinary and within safe limits prior to the explosion, and what actually happened.

Chief executive Peter Whittall told journalists assembled in Greymouth the following day that there’d been no unusual readings from sensors inside the mines designed to detect unsafe levels of explosive gases like methane. He elaborated on this with TVNZ’s Q & A Programme on 28 November:

“To allow a slow build-up of methane in our working areas I would find very unlikely, given that at the time of the incident we were on a continuous shift, they’d been working all day. And the night before mining officials had been taking methane readings, and in the working faces we’ve got the records from the early indications – and …my indications from reading those reports is that they were being done properly. The only reports we haven’t got are from one of the guys, Peter O’Neill, who is still in the mine. And his shift went longer, through the end of the shift. He worked a 12-hour shift, so his reports for that build-up that day before are still with him. But I would expect that there hasn’t been a slow build-up in many of the working faces.”

Was it possible that the miners had released some methane into the tunnel through blasting? TVNZ asked that question but Whittall confirmed there’d only been one tiny piece of blasting work, at 11am that morning, and no one had recorded anything unusual:

“We shotfire and blast every day, we have done for a couple of years. We have procedures for that. And on this particular day I understand we did a very small shot on a piece of roadway where sometimes if you can’t get a machine in to mine it, and it’s only small, you want a small little stub roadway, then shotfiring’s the most quick and efficient way. We had fired a shot at 11 o’clock, 11am, I believe. I haven’t looked at the records, but I’ve asked management on site, and was assured that the explosives and detonators had all been booked out. Those that were used were accounted for, and those that weren’t used were returned and accounted for, and they were happy with the procedures that were followed. So I have said before that, to my knowledge and the knowledge of the management that have advised me, there’s no direct link between our shotfiring activities, and there was no shotfiring to our knowledge going on at the time of the incident.”

So again, what went wrong? Investigate believes it now has some answers. On Saturday December 4, we received an anonymous email from a man whose wife was connected to the Pike River mining operation. The woman, he said, had come into possession of information that she wasn’t sure how to handle.

“As a contractor, they don’t get paid when the mine shuts down due to high methane levels,” our source told the magazine, “and as a consequence, some of the contractors would cover the sensors with chewing gum to stop them triggering.”

Was the cause of the mine blast that simple – a bad choice made because workers lost money if the mine closed down due to gassiness?

On its own, the claim is unverified, but as the editor of the Washington Post told Woodward and Bernstein on the Watergate investigation, “get me two more sources and it’s a story”. The first corroboration came when the Timaru Herald interviewed former Pike River miner Brent Forrester and left this nugget of information buried halfway down the page:

“Mr Forrester recalled an incident where a miner received a written warning after putting an air hose up to a methane sensor to bring its reading down.”

The significance of this, or why a miner would do such a thing, was not fully explained in the Timaru Herald article, but now becomes clear from the information given to Investigate: some mining contractors on hourly rates had financial reasons for wanting or needing the mine to stay open, and evidently playing with the sensors formed a part of that strategy.

The third piece of confirming evidence comes from Labour Party President and EPMU union boss Andrew Little, who has told Investigate he’d heard similar stories from miners:

“I can tell you what I’ve heard, in the days immediately following, is that there’s apparently a bypass mode on the methane sensors used on the operating gear and heavy equipment by the miners…the emphasis was on maximising the coal take and some people were putting sensors on the equipment into a bypass mode.

“So when we’re hearing three different stories about the sensors then I certainly think there’s something in it and that now has got to be one of the major focuses of the Commission of Inquiry, and the backdrop has to be, what kind of incentives were there that would have encouraged this kind of thing to happen?” exclaims Little.

The engineering union president confirms that contractors “only got paid when the mine was getting coal out, if there was no coal coming out the contractors weren’t needed, so there is an issue there.”

The source who first contacted Investigate claimed it was some of the contractors blocking the methane sensors in order to ensure they worked a full day and got a full day’s pay. Former miner Brent Forrester told the Timaru Herald there were a number of safety breaches in the mine and that management were not sufficiently onto it, but it’s significant that he recalls the worker who tampered with the methane sensor received a written warning. Clearly, when the company did find out about such safety breaches it was concerned about them.

For his part, Andrew Little suspects the company was putting too much pressure on crews to get coal out and make the mine economic – which would shift blame back onto the company, but he concedes independent contractors did have a financial incentive of their own to keep the mine operational, and the competing interests of private contractors and fully paid union men is something that may well be relevant in other New Zealand mines if the same compensation for downtime issues exist elsewhere.

The Commission of Inquiry, then, has a range of options to consider and the truth may be a mix of all of them, or none of them. The company was certain its methane readings were normal. But clearly there are now three reports of workers tampering with the methane sensors, so investigators cannot rely on the company gas readings as being true and correct. The elephant in the room is that the mine blew up despite apparently “normal” gas readings, which lends significant weight to something being badly wrong with the gas detection system.

Brent Forrester has told journalists the Pike River mine “always had ventilation issues” while he worked there, and that his own personal gas detection unit frequently went “off the charts”. He is critical of management, saying many of the methane sensors inside the mine were not properly calibrated – which was a factor in a West Virginian coal mine explosion earlier in 2010. Sensors were supposed to have been calibrated there every 31 days, but hadn’t been calibrated for three months.

Was it the same story at Pike River Coal?

“My first reaction was, ‘I knew this was going to happen’,” Forrester told the newspaper. “I just had a feeling.”

“I’m actually surprised the two guys that got out, got out,” he added. “If you look at some of the information, it would have hit over 1200 degrees Celsius straight away from the explosion…there’s a risk of further explosions so obviously it’s very hot. That coal has a low sulphur, high carbon content so it burns very hot. It’s a very unique sort of coal, it always fetches more on the market. If it ever caught fire you’d be struggling to get out of there.”

The moment on the Saturday morning that one of the surviving miners revealed he’d seen a flash up the tunnel just before the blast knocked him from his earthmover, it should have become fairly obvious that the chances of anyone surviving close to ground zero were slim to nil. A flash in a dark tunnel meant ignition, ignition meant flame, and flame meant the kind of searing temperatures that would scorch a person’s lungs from the inside out while they lay breathing unconscious from the blast. It is almost certain none of the trapped miners suffered in their passing, and those (if any) still alive after the flashfire would almost certainly have gone to sleep in the heavily carbon monoxide-laden atmosphere.

One of the criticisms Labour Party president Andrew Little does have of the mine and police is their collective failure to communicate the seriousness of the miners’ plight once confirmation of a fireball had been made:

“One of the issues is how much the families and public were told about the chances of survival after that first explosion. One of the things I’m critical of, the more I learn from others, is that the chances of surviving that first explosion were pretty remote anyway, and families should have been told that rather than raise hopes day after day until that second explosion five days later.

“The gases that are left behind are suffocating, and the gas rescue packs only last about 40 minutes. Now I got down there on the Saturday morning and the miners were telling me that if they hadn’t walked out by that time the chances of them surviving were extremely remote.”

Which brings us to the next big question of the Inquiry: could and should mine rescuers have done more to enter the mine immediately they knew there was a problem on that first afternoon? Pike River will go down in history as the only coal mine explosion in New Zealand where bodies were not brought out within 24 hours of a blast. For the sake of context, we’ve had nine such explosions since 1879.

One expert, Peter Ewen, has questioned whether Pike River’s ventilation system was the problem, pointing out it was the only one of the nine mines where the ventilation fan was installed underground instead of on the surface. To be fair, though, it’s unlikely that any of the nineteenth and very early 20th century mine explosions had effective ventilation systems at all.

“Some questions have got to be asked about the fan,” Ewen told the New Zealand Herald. “The fan was 100 metres underground, and once the explosion happened there was no way they were going to restore ventilation because they couldn’t get to it… Who went against the old way of doing it, by allowing the fan in the mine itself? You had no access to it once there was an explosion.”

Peter Ewen may have a point.

In the United States, underground fans in coal mines are expressly forbidden – illegal in fact – under Federal law, as Richard Jay Jr summarises in a mining industry research paper:..

Further extended coverage of this story is available in the January 2011 issue of Investigate, further details from our Facebook site (at right)