Investigation: “The health and safety event of a generation”, Jane Westaway

Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and Why 29 Men Died
Rebecca Macfie
Awa Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781877551901

Every New Zealander of voting age should read this book. It recounts the decades-long lead-up to an afternoon, nearly three years ago, when 29 men – some just boys – were killed by a mighty explosion in the West Coast’s Pike River Mine. A tragedy whose occurrence, author Rebecca Macfie makes grimly clear, was a matter not of if but when:

[M]en like Willie Joynson, who went underground every day to earn a living, and were entitled to the protection of robust safety systems and equipment that left a fat margin for error, were working on the edge. Pike River Mine, which needed to have the best of everything to succeed in its tough environment – the best geological knowledge, the best equipment, the most rigorous safety regime – had the worst of everything. Joynson and his workmates were exposed on all sides by those whose job it was to protect them: a regulator that was submissive and unwilling to use the power that was at its disposal; a board that was incurious, bereft of knowledge and experience of underground coalmining, and unable to see the symptoms of failure; management that was unstable, ill-equipped for the environment, and incapable of putting together all the pieces of its own frightening picture; and a union that was marginalised and irrelevant.

 

These calmly stated conclusions come after 180 pages detailing a relentless history of mistake, oversight, lost opportunity and wilful neglect, driven in good part by the tunnel vision of management and board. The light at the end of their tunnel was market-place success; all but invisible to them were the human beings – some their own neighbours – who were paid by the hour to cut the coal from deep within a mountain range so the company could show a profit. These 29 men didn’t just die – they were killed. And how and why should concern us all, especially with an election in sight.

In October 2008, Pike announced that the mine had been “de-risked” and had hit coal. International coal prices had peaked, and the company had settled its first sale at a price three times better than forecast in its prospectus 18 months earlier. It had taken two years to get the mine tunnel to this point. On the day, general manager Peter Whittall travelled from the surface with the overjoyed mayor of Greymouth, Tony Kokshoorn. The picture in the paper the following day showed Whittall holding a rugby ball-sized lump of coal. It was, he was recorded as saying, “the first lump we’ve been able to get away from the face”.

But it wasn’t. In fact, Whittall had carried that piece of coal down from the surface. What’s more, the coal actually visible at the face that day wasn’t hard, shiny and top-grade, but soft and crumbly.

It’s to Macfie’s credit that she relates this event and many others so neutrally, never crowing, trumpeting or belabouring. Her summary of this one merely suggests that such a low-level, possibly forgivable, piece of impression management was “entirely in keeping with the well-established tendency of Pike’s leaders to err on the bright side”.

But it was this determination to be optimistic – to shove under the carpet any evidence that a more cautious view was called for – that led directly to the fatal explosion.

The licence to mine the thick seam of quality coking coal lying beneath the rugged Paparoa range passed, in 1979, into the hands of a corporate structure almost as difficult to penetrate as the seam itself. The seam was mapped and the coal sampled in the early 80s. In 1987, the new and overlapping Paparoa National Park was created. This overlap made a mining operation less attractive to the potential partners needed to get the coal out of the ground. What was more, the terrain and access were difficult, and the field itself dangerously high in methane gas.

By 1998, the licence-owner – now New Zealand Oil and Gas (NZOG) – was, in Macfie’s well-chosen words, “titillating the market” with talk of a public listing. That talk ignored the calculations several years earlier by a renowned Japanese expert of five or six million tonnes of coal a year and put the mine’s annual potential at 30 million tonnes. A final feasibility study promised investors a delightful 29 per cent return. Company weaknesses were redefined as strengths: the company’s lack of mining experience freed it from any “preconception on management issues”.

Those with lingering doubts about the role of the workers themselves in the tragedy need to understand the state of play in the South Island’s West Coast. The mid-20th-century coal boom was over, and government restructuring in the 1980s had wiped out jobs in railways, forestry, communications and postal services. The promise of the Pike mine was built on a 30-year recession. No wonder locals looked on it as something of a cargo cult.

In February 2005, Whittall was appointed general manager of the start-up company that would finally get the coal out of the ground. His figure haunts these pages. Those of us not directly affected by the tragedy – the horribly under-informed, in other words – fast came to see his televised and photographed features as the image of corporate care and concern. He made us feel that everything possible had been and was being done to rescue the 29 down the mine after it exploded. He fronted the succeeding nightmarish days like a hero. He kept up our hopes, and the hopes of those fearing the worst for the men they loved.

Within five months of his appointment, he had co-authored a report to the company’s board (a subset of the NZOG board) designed to convince it to float the company on the sharemarket to raise the capital needed to start mining. The report claimed the mine would produce between one and 1.4 million tonnes of coking coal a year – another unfounded leap away from the Japanese expert’s prediction of five to six million tonnes.

The public offering went ahead in 2007. The May 2007 prospectus said coal would be pouring out of the mine by March 2008 and that, by 2009, production would be at a million tonnes a year.

It’s worth documenting these promises – as Macfie so scrupulously does – because they are apparently what drove Whittall, his board and many – but by no means all – of his colleagues to underrate, even competely ignore, the risks to which the men in the tunnel were daily exposed. A burning question is whether Whittall and the others were fooling themselves, too, and – either way – whether their actions and inactions justified criminal charges. If, as the Royal Commission found, the Pike River Mine disaster was due to systemic failure, does that mean no one should have to take responsibility? Is that the kind of society we want to live in?

What happened after the first explosion makes as painful reading as that preceding it. Day after day, Whittall stood before families and cameras issuing messages tinged with hope, long after those who understood coalmining in general, and this mine in particular, knew the men must be dead. Whittall’s public image finally collapsed five days later, when he stood up to deliver the news the families dreaded. Yet he broke from the agreed format and began telling them gas levels had improved and that he had been called to the mine because rescuers were preparing to go in. People began cheering and clapping. Police Superintendent Gary Knowles took over, informing the crowd there’d been a second explosion that no one could have survived: “The crowded hall erupted in a cacophony of grief. Some people wailed; some fell to the floor. Others shouted, screamed and swore. Some ran from the room.”

Judge Jane Farish called the disaster “the health and safety event of a generation”. What might prove her dreadfully wrong is if we allow this story to go unremarked, and refuse to learn from it.

The first step in that lesson could well be wide readership for this book. Macfie has done the country a service in bringing this complex, drawn-out story so clearly to light. At its most banal, it’s a page-turner. She begins with the men in the tunnel on the day of the explosion, then back-tracks until she brings us to the grievous aftermath, a technique that, through all the twists and turns of the story, keeps the men and their families at the back of the reader’s mind. And her prose is a perfect example of Orwell’s gold standard for good writing: as clear as a window pane.

But it’s as a record of a tragedy with its roots in misplaced priorities that the book shines. Workplace safety in this country has, in the last few decades, sunk to an appalling low. Wellington barrister Hazel Armstrong has, for instance, documented another field in which this occurred: railways, in whose employ 11 men died between 1990 and 2000 against a background of deregulation and privatisation,  in Your Life for the Job: New Zealand Rail Safety 1974-2000.

Macfie’s work in laying down another plank in this sorry history deserves not just a prize but a medal.

 

Jane Westaway is a Wellington writer and editor, and a partner in Words@Work.  

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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