Families say no mining until bodies retrieved

11:15 pm on 11 May 2012

Families of the victims of the Pike River mining disaster are threatening to block coal sales from the mine if it is commercially reopened without the dead being brought out first.

Twenty-nine men died in 2010 when explosions destroyed the West Coast coal mine, which was in receivership until bought on Thursday by Solid Energy.

The families' spokesperson, Bernie Monk, says the terms of the sale weaken earlier pledges to get the remains of the men out for a proper burial.

"John Key said the top priority was to get the bodies out. That is not happening, the bodies are secondary."

He says retrieving the bodies has only been mentioned by Solid Energy in terms of a commercial decision to reopen the mine.

Mr Monk says if necessary, apart from blockading the mine, the families will accept help from New Zealand and international unions to enforce a boycott of the mine.

Solid Energy has agreed to buy the West Coast mine for $7.5 million, with a further $25 million payable if mining resumes. It has pledged to retrieve the bodies as long as it can be done safely, and in a technically feasible and commercially credible way.

Mr Monk says economic concerns are now taking precedence and the families feel badly let down.

Government expectations 'remain the same'

Labour and the Greens say the Prime Minister needs to honour his promise that whatever can be done to recover the miners' bodies will be done.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said on Friday the Government's expectations on the recovery of the men remain the same.

The Energy and Resources Minister, Phil Heatley, rejects suggestions the sale of the Pike River mine waters down earlier pledges to get the dead out for a proper burial.

Mr Heatley says the Government has a firm message to Solid Energy.

"If they undergo commercial operations they have to put together a plan for body recovery. That plan clearly has to be safe, technically feasible and financially credible.

"Now, we'll make a judgement on those three things, but we've tied commercial mining of coal to body recovery."

Solid Energy says recovery could take eight years

Solid Energy says the company will not put more lives at risk by attempting to recover the bodies.

The company held a private meeting with families of the men in Greymouth on Thursday shortly after signing the sale and purchase agreement.

Chief executive Don Elder told them there could be no recovery attempt unless a new mine was operational, which could take five to eight years.

Mr Elder told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme a recovery operation will need the support of a working mine operation and the company will not put more people's lives at significant risk.

"It wasn't the answer that I would have wanted to give (the families) but it's the right answer, very simply because any body recovery in the future involves working in a very, very hazardous, difficult environment," he said.

"We've looked at all the options for an up-front stand-alone recovery, as it's been called, and talked with our international advisers as well, and came to the very unfortunate conclusion ... that the only way you can do a body recovery operation is if you do it properly associated with a full new underground mine."

Mr Monk says the news was met with tears.

"It's just brought it home that we've wasted 18 months of hoping like hell once that mine gets sold that we were going to get recovery."

Grey District mayor Tony Kokshoorn told Morning Report it made a mockery of all the work done since the explosions at the mine, and the community will encourage Solid Energy to revisit its timeframe.

Company initially walked away from mine purchase

In taking over the mine Solid Energy will pay Pike River Coal $7.5 million followed by a further $25 million once coal production commences.

Mr Elder says the company told the receiver in November that it did not think the mine was worth even the initial amount.

In March, however, the receiver said no other company was interested and asked Solid Energy to revisit the decision.

"We recognise we're the only significant miner in New Zealand, we know the conditions and we said, 'well okay ... we'll have a look at it'."

Pike River Coal went into receivership in December 2010, the month after 29 men died in a series of explosions at the West Coast mine.