Controversy at Pike River Inquiry

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River tragedy got off to a controversial start yesterday, with Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder saying Pike had been “over-optimistic” about the viability of the mine.

Elder was the first to take the stand during proceedings in Greymouth yesterday.

State-owned Solid Energy is the most prominent of bidders for the embattled mine, and prior to a gag being placed on all bidders, it said it is the only company with enough west coast mining experience to make the mine financially viable again.

But Elder now says Pike River Coal had been "over-optimistic" about the commercial viability of operating in "the difficult conditions of the West Coast".

"Pike River had done insufficient coal-seam and geological investigation work and had insufficient information to proceed with mine design and development at a level of risk consistent with what Solid Energy would consider good industry practice,” he said.

Elder said he and other Solid Energy employees believed the commercial risk of the Pike River mine was very high.

He pointed out potential safety risks at the mine including difficult geological conditions, hydraulic mining methods and prolonged financial pressure on the company from years of production delays.

He also slammed suggestions from Prime Minister John Key that open-cut mining could make the operation financially viable again.

He said coal prices were too low and the only option would be underground mining and also raised concerns about the mine’s poorer coal quality than predicted.

He said Solid Energy sold Pike River’s stockpile after the explosions but could not get anyone to buy it as hard coking coal or even as semi-hard coking coal.

Elder was cross-examined by counsel for some of the Pike River directors, officers and management, Stacey Shortall, yesterday.

She questioned Solid Energy’s own safety record and said Elder had never raised questions about concerns with Pike River previously.

Her examination is expected to continue today.

The commission’s counsel, James Wilding, traversed the inquiry’s layout yesterday, after highlighting one of 439,000 websites he found mentioning Pike River.

It was dedicated to the men who died and served as a reminder of the key purpose of the inquiry – to prevent a similar tragedy occurring ever again.

Today’s proceedings are expected to be just as controversial, with former chief mining inspector Harry Bell taking the stand to discuss the scrapping of independent mining inspectors across the country in the 1990’s.

He will share his experiences working on the mine tunnel at Pike River in 2007 and 2008.

Image: Families of victims following the first explosion at the mine

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