The future of underground mining in New Zealand is at stake as a Royal Commission is called to investigate the Pike River coal mine tragedy.
Following a fourth blast at the mine over the weekend, NZ Prime Minister John Key has today taken a proposal to the country’s cabinet to debate underground mining.
“In the end, the future of Pike River and actually underground coalmining in New Zealand rests on this (inquiry)”, Key told TVNZ.
He went on to say that “we can’t put people into environments that are this dangerous.”
There are currently only four operating underground coal mines in New Zealand, which have seen a boom in recent times due to the high demand for quality coking and thermal coal from China, India and South East Asia.
Overall, the four mines employ approximately 450 staff.
The Royal Commission itself would be the first since 1979, following the Air New Zealand tragedy in Antarctica which killed more than 250 people.
It would be led by a judge and two additional personnel.
The investigation would be carried out in conjunction with that of the coroners’ office, the Labour Department and the police.
It is also likely to have what Key termed as an “international component”, consisting of international and local expertise and would have “absolute powers” to subpoena any witness.
One of the NZ Greens’ leaders, Russel Norman, called for it to be carried out in two parts, the first focused solely on the mine and the second at the validity and safety of underground mining in New Zealand as a whole.
"There have been many questions raised about whether the regulatory framework is strong enough," Norman said.
While Key could not speculate on the future of the mine, many believe that it is no longer viable to operate within the coal mine.
This view was compounded after the fourth explosion, which saw smoke and flames erupt from the mine entrance and sparked an enormous coal fire.
The blast destroyed a ventilation shaft and flames hot into the air, setting nearby vegetation alight.
Hopes for the recovery of the 29 bodies within the mine intact have now diminished.