A mining expert says the Pike River Coal tragedy could have been avoided, if New Zealand still used a mining inspector program it threw out years ago.
Dave Feickert said a chief inspector would have noticed dangerous levels of gases around the mine and evacuated the men prior to an explosion.
He says while safety officials do monitor mines around the country, the current system is inferior to the inspector program used until the late 90’s.
As a safety inspector, Feickhert led the efforts to save men at the Huntly mine explosion in 1992. While the mine was destroyed, the men were saved.
“Nobody was injured. That was the last major explosion where that system was in operation and it wasn’t in operation at Pike River because it doesn’t exist.
The most crucial part of the old system was that inspectors would be constantly at the mine site and would see a dangerous situation developing.
“The mine was having a whole lot of gas problems…and what would have happened is the mine management would have called in the chief inspectors or specialist inspectors to give them advice on how to deal with the situation as it was developing.
This wasn’t just one off, it was part of a whole pattern of gas problems they were having. We don’t know exactly how the gas explosion occurred because nobody’s been able to go in to have a look.
But we do know enough about what had been going on in the months beforehand to know this was a distinct possibility.”
According to the expert, an inspector at Pike River would have asked about draining the gas build-ups before allowing men to enter the mine and pushed for proper drainage installation.
“A chief inspector and his inspectors would have said ‘Look guys, we need to get that sorted out otherwise there will be problems’.”
He also criticised the decision making by Prime Minister John Keys about mine safety, saying he should does not have the expertise to make such calls.
“No wonder the families of the 29 dead are furious. They should be.”
He said cutting the inspector programme in the late 90’s left Pike River management isolated and unsupported by specialist inspectors who have experience in gas management, but he was quick to say the blame should not be on Pike River itself but rather on the authorities who oversee mining regulation and safety.
“I’m not saying they were totally irresponsible. I’m saying they were very unsupported.”
Feickhert is working with the Chinese government and companies on a better mining safety programme.
“They have a lot more serious problems than we do in New Zealand, and I have to say they have a more effective inspectorate than we have at the moment.
That’s a bit of a sad comment really because they’ve gone forward and we’ve gone backwards.”