Safety more important than cash flow: Whittall

PIKE River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall told a Royal Commission of Inquiry in New Zealand yesterday the company did not allow its declining financial position to compromise safety at the mine, which claimed 29 lives in an explosion last November.
Safety more important than cash flow: Whittall Safety more important than cash flow: Whittall Safety more important than cash flow: Whittall Safety more important than cash flow: Whittall Safety more important than cash flow: Whittall

The PRC tag board with 29 miners who never came back.

Lou Caruana

He claimed the company faced geotechnical, human resources, and financial challenges but safety was paramount – despite it not conducting a trial evacuation of an alimak ladder in a 108 metre ventilation shaft that was the mine’s only emergency escape.

"The needs of the company's cash flow were never put ahead of the need to operate the mine safely," Whittall said.

In 2010 Whittall was given the job of organising a capital raising for the company as costs blew out.

"Cash flows were going down, we were burning through cash quite quickly ... buying a lot of equipment," he said.

"Money coming in is a much better thing than just money going out."

The first phase of the mine’s feasibility study did not take into account inflation rates for Pike, which were soaring between 25% to 30% a year with earning capacity for workers tripling before the time of the accident.

Whittall appointed a safety and training manager as well as a mine manager.

There was also a health and safety subcommittee of the board, which would come on site, but it never engaged an independent auditor.

The inquiry asked Whittall whether a risk assessment had been done from the perspective of workers exiting the mine by the ladder.

Whittall’s reply was non-committal.

“I can't recall the specifics of that at the time,” he said. “That would have sat within the domain of the mine manager and the safety personnel and the engineering managers at the time so I can't recall specifically.”

Regarding the question of whether there was ever a trial evacuation of all men underground up the ladder, Whittall confirmed that he did not participate in one and did not think there was an escape exercise involving crews on the ladder.

“Not to my recollection,” he replied. “You mean all men, as in everyone on shift? No, not to my recollection. It was used by people going up and down it but I don’t recall doing a trial evacuation, no.”

Whittall said he had not seen the report on the mine's gas management in May last year which raised concerns about a number of issues, including minimal data on gas content and inadequate drainage.

Whittall said the company had a plan in 2010 to construct a fresh air base at the mine.

“Essentially a fresh air base is a place underground which has got usually access, direct access to the surface from a fresh air point of view so it can't be contaminated by, say, smoke in the mine,” he said.

“The rescue chamber was really the changeover station, just different terminologies. A rescue chamber is something that you can buy and they're sold by various people around the world, and you put 10 underground and you hose it up and people can go there, shut the doors and they've got compressed air feeds separate to the mine supply and you can actually go and sit in there.

“There's some debate in the industry as to the validity of those and whether, if in any emergency, you would want to go and shut the door and lock yourself in there or whether you would want to escape from the mine or have somewhere else that’s got direct access to the surface rather than relying on bottles or air or some other supply.”

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