24 Sep 2014

Pike River owner to make own decision

7:27 pm on 24 September 2014

Solid Energy will base a decision on re-entering the Pike River mine on information from its own advisors, rather than that of the government's health and safety regulator, it says.

Solid Energy chief executive Dan Clifford.

Solid Energy chief executive Dan Clifford. Photo: RNZ

Solid Energy took ownership of the mine in 2012 and last September it committed to a seven-stage plan with the Government to go into the 2.3 kilometre tunnel. That work has been repeatedly delayed, and the company has blamed safety issues.

But documents released under the Official Information Act show the health and safety regulator WorkSafe told Solid Energy the re-entry plan was safe and technically feasible more than a year ago.

Mr Clifford today insisted a re-entry was still too risky. However, he would not outline what legal advice the board had been given around a potential re-entry.

"Directors liability is an important thing, and it's being taken very seriously," he said.

"That's been a fundamental change in the law since Pike River, so we need to learn from that, and that is being taken seriously."

Solid Energy's Board hoped to make a decision on whether a re-entry would go ahead by next month, he said.

However, it would make a decision on information from its own advisers rather than from WorkSafe, Mr Clifford said.

"They're not legally responsible for what happens in that drift. We are. Solid Energy is, and we will make that decision. We'll take advice - we have and we will - but ultimately the decision comes down to our board after we get through a comprehensive risk process."

The residual risks remained potentially fatal, he said.

Neither Prime Minister John Key nor Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges would comment on the issue today, while State-Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall said in a statement the decision to re-enter Pike River was one to be made by Solid Energy.

It was the responsibility of the company alone, Mr Ryall said.

Solid Energy is refusing to give a timeline on when the West Coast mine might be re-entered.

The bodies of the 29 men who died in a series of explosions which began on 19 November 2010 remain in the mine.

The lawyer acting for most of the Pike River families wants owner Solid Energy to say where it is getting its advice about the re-entry.

Lawyer Nicholas Davidson, QC, told Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon programme the board of Solid Energy repeatedly refused to answer questions about what legal advice it had had.

"The question that I asked at the meeting I did attend by teleconference was whose advice, whose tick, is needed before the company and the board can make the decision, or makes the decision, whether actually to press the button and go in - and I was told the question was inappropriate."

The company said in a statement today it was still waiting on evaluations and individual expert's opinions, and could not give a timeline for a decision.

Since the Worksafe letters were written, subsequent evaluations had resulted in some further concerns about risk levels and other matters, it said.

Solid Energy board chairperson Pip Dunphy said the company understands the time it is taking to complete its evaluation is frustrating for family members.

Ms Dunphy says following the preliminary risk assessment, the board's advisor recommended further assessment of the risks, a step which is aligned to industry best practice.

Pike River families

Pike River families protested during Prime Minister John Key's visit to Greymouth last month over lack of progress in recovering the men's bodies. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Safe to re-enter - Worksafe

The final phase of re-entering the tunnel was expected to be completed in April this year but was delayed by Solid Energy, which said residual risks needed to be addressed before the board considered the proposal.

In a letter to the company dated August this year, WorkSafe New Zealand chief inspector Tony Forster said there were no operational barriers to re-entering the mine's tunnel.

He said: "The Pike River Re-entry Assessment Group has not identified any technical matters that would prevent the current plan from proceeding". In the letter Mr Forster restated his view, first expressed in October 2013, that the current plan was safe.

Mr Forster also said he was pleased to note "that Solid Energy has taken legal advice on the Impact of the proposed health and safety legislation and is now in agreement with WorkSafe that there is no legal impediment to proceeding without a second egress."

However, in response to Mr Forster's letter, Solid Energy's chief executive, Dan Clifford, said he wanted to make it clear he did not say Solid Energy was 'now in agreement' with WorkSafe in respect to legal impediments. "I said that I am not surprised that the advice you read out to me was your view."

A spokesperson for Solid Energy said things had moved on since those letters were sent, evaluations as part of the risk assessment process have resulted in some further concerns about risk levels and other matters.

The damaged access portal of the Pike River coal mine in November 2010.

The damaged access portal of the Pike River coal mine in November 2010. Photo: REUTERS

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