22 Jul 2011

Pike boss rejects claim resources went into coal face, not exit

10:34 pm on 22 July 2011

The first phase of the Royal Commission inquiring into the Pike River disaster has finished with the chief executive of the company rejecting a claim resources were put into developing a coal face instead of a second exit.

Explosion in the West Coast mine killed 29 men last November.

The two-week hearing into the context of the tragedy was completed in Greymouth on Friday, with mine company chief executive Peter Whittall the final witness.

He gave almost a day of evidence on the design and development of the mine, and then faced questions for a day-and-a-half.

On Friday, Richard Raymond, representing the Pike mine families, suggested to Mr Whittall that extracting coal came first, ahead of working on opening a second exit in the mine.

That was strongly denied by Mr Whittall who said a continuous miner machine was allocated to building the tunnel towards the second exit and that other work was continuing on the second access.

Mr Raymond also put it to Mr Whittall the fresh air chamber - or stub - was not a safety chamber as found in other mines and Mr Whittall agreed. Mr Whittall said he was not aware the chamber held a maximum of 20 men.

Mr Raymond said it was surprising Mr Whittall had not been into it. [image:2529:full]

Better inspection system wouldn't have helped

Earlier on Friday, Mr Whittall said a better mine inspection system would not have averted the explosions.

He told the commissioners he supported the company's position that mining standards needed to be overhauled.

But he said a new and improved super-inspectorate would not have changed the events in November because the cause of the explosions was unknown.

Disturbing information - Monk

The spokesperson for the victims' families, Bernie Monk, says far more has come out in the open than he expected during the first phase of the Royal Commission.

Mr Monk, whose son Michael died in the disaster, says that even at this early stage of the inquiry, disturbing information about the safety standards at the mine has come out.

He told Checkpoint it is clear the men couldn't have escaped the mine if they survived the first blast.

Mr Monk says Peter Whittall's evidence on Friday made it clear the men had no chance of getting out and that the company didn't look after them while they were underground.

He says it has been a difficult two weeks, but he is very confident the commission will get to the truth.

The Royal Commission has now completed the first of four phases of its inquiry. The second phase will start in early September.