NZ needs Qld expertise: Solid Energy

AS THE inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster resumes, Solid Energy has flagged the need for an overhaul of New Zealand’s mining industry and has recommended that the Department of Labour’s inspectorate role be carried out by the Queensland Mines Inspectorate.

Lauren Barrett

Solid Energy, the New Zealand Mines Rescue Service and the DOL made their final submissions at the fourth phase of the inquiry into the deaths of 29 men yesterday.

The final submissions detail recommendations on how to improve the New Zealand mining industry in the wake of the Pike River explosion.

Phase four will determine whether extra regulation is needed in the country’s mining sector and will examine the profile of an effective mining inspectorate.

Solid Energy told the commission it wanted the DOL’s role as the inspectorate for underground coal mines to be contracted out to “an existing experienced, skilled and mature overseas regulator, preferably the Queensland Mines Inspectorate.”

In addition the producer wants the regulations governing New Zealand underground mining industry to be broadly based on Queensland’s regime.

Solid Energy lawyer Craig Stevens said “Solid Energy considers … that the tragedy resulted from failures within Pike River Coal Limited and was contributed to by the Department of Labour’s inspectorate not being adequately resourced.”

Stevens outlined how the recommendation would work, suggesting that the recently set up high hazards unit would be retained there, with the New Zealand staff overseeing the underground coal mining industry.

However he said that important resources, including assistance from inspectors and from specialists with qualifications in electrical engineering and ventilation, would be sourced from Queensland.

Stevens said Queensland expertise could be a major assistance to improving the New Zealand mines inspectorate.

“The challenges of being able to establish a fully resourced and efficient coal mines inspectorate in New Zealand under the high hazards unit and in a market which is rapidly becoming a single market, is a very big ask,” he said.

Solid Energy chief executive officer Don Elder echoed the words spoken at the inquiry, saying Queensland was best placed to offer its services to New Zealand’s mining industry on a long-term basis.

“On an international scale, New Zealand mining is a small industry,” Elder said in a statement.

“Our suggestion is that the government opens discussions with its counterparts at federal and state level in Australia to find out if an existing service which already has that capability – we are suggesting Queensland because we believe it is at the forefront of safety in Australia – would be able to contract to provide inspectorate and support services.”

Solid Energy also suggested that a senior underground coal mine expert take “control” of any future coal mining disasters, adding that in the instance of Pike River the police had to Google questions about the role of Australian Mines Rescue personnel arriving at the scene.

Also making recommendations to the inquiry on Monday was lawyer Simon Moore, who was representing the New Zealand police.

Moore said the Pike River disaster which struck on November 19, 2010 was the largest multiple fatality incident in New Zealand since Cave Creek in 1995, where 14 died.

“It was on any international or national scale a disaster of massive proportions,” Moore said.

Despite the police coming under fire for the role they had in leading the search and rescue mission after the explosion, Moore said the police should continue to be in command in a mine rescue effort.

The police followed a three-tier structure: incident controller superintendent Gary Knowles was making decisions in Greymouth; there was monitoring of the mine at the scene; and decisions were also being made in Wellington.

Commissioner Stewart Bell questioned the fact that police still wanted a three-tier command structure.

“I’m not aware of any other jurisdiction anywhere that has this three tier system to do with, say, a mine entry after a problem,” Bell said.

Moore said this concept was ideal, and also highly advised against putting the DOL in charge of a similar tragedy.

“It’s plain on the evidence as at 19 November there was no one within the department at that point who had the relevant skills and experience to lead an operation of this magnitude,” Moore said.

Mines Rescue Service lawyer Garth Gallaway lashed out at the police’s recommendations, reminding the inquiry that for approximately five days after the disaster the police had thought, and led the families to believe, that the men although trapped, were alive.

Gallaway said there were “comprehensive factors” in the Mines Rescue’s submission that indicated survivability was unlikely “but trailing alongside that were the police relying on what Mr Whittall was saying in the media and the fact that a couple of men had escaped.”

The factors included high readings of carbon monoxide in the mine and the workforce was trained to self-escape rather than secure themselves in there.

There was also no communication from the mine after survivor Daniel Rockhouse's phone call, Gallaway said.

“Mines Rescue’s position is that it [the operation] didn't work effectively and I think it would be fair to say that it is surprising, in my submission, to still have the police advocating a system such as this in relation to another disaster,” he said.

“Mines Rescue’s position is of course that an incident controller should be a person with mining experience.”

Department of Labour lawyer Kristy McDonald QC said in her submission that the department was proposing a new regulatory focus for underground coal mining in the wake of the tragedy.

The department, which is tasked with ensuring the safety of a workplace is proposing a three pillars of support concept which would involve employers/operators being required to produce health and safety management systems and emergency management plans.

The internationally recognised support system also advocates the introduction of stricter controls on principle hazards such as methane, strata control and ventilation.

Phase four will wrap up on April 4.