Pike river mine families accept end of mission to find victims 'with heartbreak'

Families of the men who died in one of New Zealand’s worst mining disasters have expressed their heartbreak that the government has ended funding to re-enter the mine, leaving the remains of their loved ones trapped inside.

Twenty-nine men were killed when an explosion ripped through the Pike river mine on the west coast in November 2010. Their bodies have not been recovered, and remain in the mine.

The Pike River Family Reference Group, which represents 27 families of those who died, said: “[The] families accept, with heartbreak, [Pike River minister] Andrew Little’s advice that there will be no more government money to expand the project at this time.”

They also acknowledged official advice that “going further would be a major, expensive engineering project, with complex potential safety risks”, and said it would be difficult to secure an exemption from WorkSafe, New Zealand’s health and safety regulator, to continue.

The families remain hopeful a police investigation could continue and uncover further evidence. “In order to honour our men and leave a legacy, the families want the deaths of our men to continue to make New Zealanders safer,” the group said.

A royal commission in 2012 found safety warnings were ignored at the site, and that government regulators had failed to inspect it effectively. No individual has ever been successfully prosecuted for the disaster.

The latest decision marks the end of the road for a government-funded effort to explore the mine’s “drift”, or access tunnel, which families had hoped could provide more conclusive answers about what caused the explosion, evidence for future prosecutions, or potentially lead to the recovery of some remains. More than $50m has already been spent by the government on exploring the access tunnel. Little, the minister responsible for Pike River re-entry told Stuff last week that the mine was “inherently unstable”, and the mission could not have an unlimited budget.

Sonya Rockhouse, who lost her son Ben in the mine, told Radio New Zealand the families were optimistic there could still be prosecutions but that the exploration could not be funded indefinitely. “It’s just a money pit really, and like I said before – when do you stop? We have been fighting for a very long time.”

Following an initial two-year investigation, New Zealand Police decided in 2013 “that no charges will be laid against any individual involved in the management of Pike River Coal prior to the explosion”. Police said at the time that while there was “ample evidence that there were widespread departures from accepted standards of mine operations”, there was not enough evidence to support laying manslaughter charges.

The company that ran the mine, Pike River Coal, was ordered to pay NZ$110,000 to each of the victim’s families and to two survivors – but the company was in receivership at the time. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment subsequently dropped 12 health and safety charges against the mine’s former chief executive Peter Whittall, in a $3.4m deal.

Justice Graham Panckhurst, who oversaw the royal commission, said: “There were numerous warnings of a potential catastrophe at Pike River” including “months of reported incidents of excess methane”.

“This, sadly, is the 12th commission of inquiry into coal mining disasters in New Zealand. This suggests that as a country we fail to learn from the past.”

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