14 Nov 2011

Mine inspector questioned over Pike River explosions

6:59 pm on 14 November 2011

New Zealand's only inspector of underground coalmines faced stiff cross examination over the explosions at the Pike River Coal Mine when the Royal Commission investigating the tragedy resumed its hearings.

The Royal Commission had earlier heard a report on the Labour Department written by an Australian team that praised its training, professionalism and organisation.

On Monday, lawyers used the appearance of the department's health and safety inspector, Michael Firmin, to undermine that picture.

Mr Firmin admitted under questioning that he had no training in auditing an underground mine.

He said there were only two underground inspectors, one of whom later left, and a contractor was doing some of the inspections for them.

During hours of cross examination, Mr Firmin also conceded he was not sure electrical checks were reported on or that a refuge chamber he had called for was in fact built.

He also told the hearing he had not carried out a major inspection of the Pike River mine during his time in the job.

A spokesperson for the families, Bernie Monk told Checkpoint the evidence hit home that the inspectorate for the mine was laughable and there was still only one inspector in New Zealand to cover all the mines.

Twenty-nine men died in the explosions, the first of which occurred on 19 November 2010.

Apology to bereaved families for timing

The latest hearings, - Phase Three of the inquiry process - is looking at what actually happened in the mine.

At the opening of the first session, the special counsel assisting the commission, Simon Mount, apologised for the timing of the latest hearings.

He said the commission was conscious that, with the 12-month anniversary coming up on Saturday, this would be a difficult time for many and stressed that no disrespect was intended in holding the sitting at this time.

However, Mr Mount says the commission was required by its terms of reference to deal with complex and difficult issues and to report back as soon as reasonably practicable.

He says the families themselves have said they want answers to their questions quickly.