19 Nov 2013

Labour pledges compensation for Pike families

9:11 pm on 19 November 2013

The Labour Party has pledged to pay compensation to the families of the men killed in the Pike River mine disaster.

Twenty-nine men were killed during a series of explosions that began at the West Coast mine on 19 November 2010.

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Photo: RNZ

Labour leader David Cunliffe said on Tuesday that if his party leads the next government after the 2014 election, it would seek to recover the $3.4 million from the parent company and shareholders of Pike River Coal.

Mr Cunliffe said a Royal Commission of Inquiry report made it clear that the Department of Labour had a role in the tragedy.

He said he has legal advice that paying the compensation would not set any precedent requiring the Government to pay compensation to families of other people killed at work.

The report, released in November 2012, said there were numerous warnings of a potential catastrophe.

"The drive for coal production before the mine was ready created the circumstances within which the tragedy occurred," it said.

Recording released

The entry to the Pike River mine after the explosion.

The entry to the Pike River mine after the explosion. Photo: RNZ

Pike River families will gather on the West Coast on Tuesday night to mark the third anniversary of the disaster.

Radio New Zealand has obtained a recording of the last contact with anyone down the mine before the explosions, audio not heard publicly before.

It has the voice of control room operator Dan Duggan who becomes increasingly concerned as he tried to get a response from someone down the mine. A transcript of the audio was read to the Royal Commission into the disaster.

The Government last week passed legislation to implement 16 recommendations made by the Royal Commission charged with finding out what happened at Pike River and why.

Labour Minister Simon Bridges said the new laws and regulations will bring mining safety into line with international best practice.

Families get 'fraction' of payout

In July this year, the company that owned the Pike River mine - which is now in receivership - was ordered to pay $NZ110,000 to each of the families of the dead miners and fined $760,000.

However, the receivers said the company did not have the money to pay the fine and gave the families just a fraction of the compensation ordered - $5000 each, AAP reports.

Shareholders in New Zealand Oil & Gas, the parent company, recently overwhelmingly voted against paying the compensation, and Prime Minister John Key has said the Government won't either.

Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall will stand trial in Wellington next year on 12 health and safety charges, but police have ruled out laying criminal charges against any individuals involved in the disaster.

Hopes still held for retrieval

The families of the workers still hope the remains of their loved ones can be recovered. Though there is no guarantee the bodies will be retrieved, the Government has put $10 million towards entering the first part of the mine.

In October this year, the Defence Force completed the first part of the re-entry programme, removing 35 tonnes of debris from the area around the top of the mine's ventilation shaft.

The next part of the plan will be to plug the top 50 to 60 metres of the 100-metre ventilation shaft with up to 700 cubic metres of concrete and other material, AAP reports.

When the ventilation shaft in the main entry tunnel has been sealed nitrogen will be pumped into the tunnel to force out the methane, and mine experts will be able to walk down the 2.3km drift to a rockfall.

However, most of the bodies are believed to be in tunnels beyond and, at this point, the operation doesn't include entering the main mine workings.