Former Pike River mine boss cops local hostility

Hostility from Greymouth locals, administrative issues and travel problems are all reasons why Former Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall wants his trial shifted to Wellington in New Zealand.

Judge Jane Farish reserved her decisionover Whittall’s application to shift the location of his trial in Greymouth District Court yesterday, reported.

Whittall will be trialed over alleged health and safety failures relating to the November 19, 2010 gas explosion at New Zealand’s Pike River underground coal mine which killed twenty-nine miners.

To date Whittall has denied all 12 charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, and did not appear in court yesterday.

The country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment [formerly the Labour Department] is alleging he failed to protect workers from harm.

It will allege the harm relates to methane, strata and ventilation management, and mitigating explosion risk and impact.

Each charge carries a maximum penalty of $NZD250,000.

Whittall's lawyer, Stuart Grieve QC, yesterday told the court Whittall had experienced "hostile and inappropriate behaviour" by members of the Greymouth public and that his ability to defend himself could be prejudiced as a result.

"It has already taken the form of verbal abuse.

"It can be understood emotions are running high in Greymouth and rightly or wrongly those emotions are focused on Mr Whittall because he is the only defendant."

Whittall is the only individual to be charged over the Pike River tragedy.

The mine’s owners Pike River Coal Ltd and drilling company VLI Drilling were also charged with multiple health and safety failures.

In court yesterday Grieve added it could be "physically and emotionally debilitating" for Wellington-based Whittall to spend three or four months away from his family.

Already Whittall’s legal team has received 660,000 documents from the ministry but the actual number of papers was far greater, such as one document comprising almost 20,000 emails.

Greive said the large volume of disclosure documents and the running of such a complex case in the Greymouth township poses administrative issues.

He did however concede that a lot of the documentation was electronic and could be put on a computer hard drive "but that is the tip of the administrative iceberg".

Adding to Grieve’s argument to have the trial location altered was the fact that many of the 140 witnesses came from outside the West Coast region, including overseas.

He said moving the trial to Wellington would save about $470,000 for both sides in expenses.

The ministry's lawyer, Brent Stanaway QC, told the court public interest in holding the trial in Greymouth outweighed "economics and convenience" for Whittall's legal team.

"It would appear his costs are being met by insurers."

He added that the families of the 29 men killed had a legitimate right to have the case heard in their own community, and their heightened interest in the trial was natural.

Grieve’s offered to pay for the case to be live streamed from Wellington so the families could watch proceedings.

Stanaway dismissed the offer saying justice needed to be seen to be occurring within the Greymouth community.

He added that while it was unfortunate Whittall had been subjected to poor treatment while
in Greymouth, he doubted it was serious enough for a change in venue.

Judge Farish said she would release her written decision before May 22.

A trial date is yet to be set.

Yesterday the ministry's case against Pike River Coal Ltd, who is now in receivership, resumed for a formal proof hearing over nine alleged health and safety failures.

Last July, the company's lawyer told the court it would not move to defend the charges, taking no part in the legal process other than appearing at sentencing if charges were proven.

The Sydney based subsidiary of Valley Longwall International, VLI Drilling, admitted  last July to three charges of health and safety failures relating to the Pike River mine and was fined $46,800 in October.

In the wake of the Pike River mine disaster the New Zealand Government authorised a Royal Commission to investigate the tragedy, which took over 12 months and cost $10.5 million to complete.

Jo Ufer, mother of Joshua Ufer, one of the men killed in the accident, has teamed up with Commissioner Stuart Bell and MSIA director Mark Parcell, running seminars to discuss the key findings of the Pike River report.

“It’s about learning the lessons from the past, from people who know the information, making sure we get it right so we minimise the grief for people in the future,” Parcell said.

“Good will come out of [the sessions] and people will take away a few lessons from the Pike tragedy,” Ufer said.

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