In the aftermath of New Zealand’s 2010 Pike River coal mine tragedy which killed 29 men, the government is reviewing its mining safety regulations.
OceanaGold managing director Michael Wilkes said the NZ government’s lack of understanding of the differences between coal and hard rock mining is concerning.
“They are very different mining businesses and have a very different risk profile from a safety perspective,” Wilkes said.
He said the gold miner, which operates the Reefton and Macraes open pit mines in the country’s South Island, has been working with the government in an effort to educate them of the differences.
“If you apply the safety standards that apply to an underground coal mine to an underground hard rock mine you’d virtually shut it down because they’re much more stringent,” he said.
Wilkes explained the key difference is how gasses are managed in an underground coal mine.
“We fully support new regulations and higher standards of safety,” he said.
Wilkes instead recommended a system similar to Queensland’s which has separate standards for coal and hard rock mines, saying this would be the best outcome.
“We’re just trying to council commonsense, getting people to understand the very big difference between underground coal mining and hard rock mining,” he said.
“In Australia we understand that.
“We hope to end up with a coal standard and a hard rock standard which are relevant to the industry.”
Wilkes added he is “concerned” about the level of involvement unions have had in the negotiation process for the tightened health and safety regulations.
“The mining union has been unusually active in establishing these new standards with the government,” he said.
While he acknowledges there needs to be workforce representatives, he said “they shouldn’t be by law necessarily union representatives”.
“They can be [union members] but they have to be elected the normal way,” Wilkes said.
Following the gas explosion the NZ government authorised a Royal Commission to investigate the tragedy which took over 12 months and cost about $10.5 million to complete.
The report that was produced includes many valuable lessons for all mines including surface, underground, coal,metals, quarries and extractive industries.
Heading up the task force was Commissioner Stewart Bell who has previously attacked the Pike River disaster head on, saying complacency was to blame.
“Pike River management and regulators weren’t doing their jobs, there was no gas monitoring, and no union check inspectors,” he has previously stated.
He warned that Pike River is a lesson for Australian miners, warning if the sector didn’t stand up and take notice it could just as easily happen here.
“Australian’s were also mismanaging Pike River, it wasn’t just a bunch of kiwis,” Bell said.
He noted that the incident could’ve been avoided if all involved including the NZ inspectorate had been actively doing their jobs at the level expected by high risk industry.
Major NZ coal miner Solid Energy has previously called for the country’s mine inspections to be run by the Queensland Mines Inspectorate rather than New Zealand's own Labour Department, which is now known as the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
In 2012 the company told the commission that by outsourcing to an overseas regulator it solved the problem of trying to staff the NZ unit in competition with Australia, and that the risks are the same no matter whether you mine in Queensland on NZ.
Stewart Bell was approached for further comment however declined due to his current position as the Queensland commissioner for mine safety and health.