IS WHITTALL A SCAPEGOAT FOR MASSIVE SAFETY FAILINGS?
Investigate February 2011
Last month our special investigation broke the news that Pike’s miners may have blown themselves up by tampering with gas sensors. Now fresh information is widening the blame, and it’s not a pretty picture. IAN WISHART has the details
New and even more damning evidence is emerging in the wake of last month’s HIS Investigate story on the Pike River coal mine disaster, and that new evidence suggests tampering with gas sensors in the mine was not only common, but may have been sanctioned by some in management.
Last month in a sellout issue Investigate became the first media outlet to reveal details of how contractors working in the mine had spiked the gas sensors deep inside the tunnels. While it may seem counterintuitive, sources told the magazine the company refused to pay contractors for their time if the mine was shut down for any reason. This left some contractors with a financial incentive to switch off the vital safety systems that provided early warning of rising gas levels.
Investigate’s revelations are understood to have sent shockwaves through the West Coast mining community, and EPMU President Andrew Little has said they are likely to form a major part of the forthcoming Commission of Inquiry into the tragedy that left 29 men entombed in the mountain and a nation asking ‘Why?’.
However, it appears the sensor tampering went wider and deeper than first thought.
“It wasn’t just contractors fiddling with sensors,” one source has told HIS. “It was common for the sensors on the motorised equipment they were using at the coalface to be switched off because the exhaust fumes from the engines kept setting them off. The company knew about it, knew it was a problem.”
Another member of the mining community has confirmed other unsafe practices inside the mineshaft:
“I do feel sorry for Peter Whittall, because he’s going to be the scapegoat in this, I can see it. But the public has a right to know,” she told HIS.
“People were taking in aluminium drink cans. The aluminium cans, they spark underground. You’ve got different types of gas down there, like you said in that article. Now when you open a can down there it can spark. Aluminium should not be down the mineshaft where any of those gases are. Same as cigarette lighters – the contractors were smuggling in bloody cigarette lighters and smokes!
“That’s why I said, all this crap was going on before Peter came on, and then Peter just had a major shakeup. He’s a hell of a nice guy, he wasn’t mean or nasty about it, but like he said when that explosion first happened, he’s weeded out the bad ones.”
But it appears Pike River workers and management are not the only ones to shoulder blame.
“There are supposed to be three air vents in the top of that hill. There is only one,” the woman told HIS. “When they first put Pike River Coal in underground, DOC agreed to three air ventilation shafts because they needed three. Now, after they’d put the first one in and wanted to put the second one in, DOC withdrew their consent for the other two.”
Whether the lack of those air vents was material in the tragedy is now a matter for the Commission of Inquiry to determine, but it’s not the only farce they’ll have to investigate. Another man has told HIS that rescue helicopters trying to beat the clock and transport equipment vital for collecting air samples in the first days of the crisis were forced to fly around in circles while bureaucrats argued about landing rights on DOC land.
“They flew over the site but couldn’t land for two hours because of the arguments between the police controlling the site and fire officials for the conservation area, so they had to land over six kilometres away and get it all trucked to the site, instead of landing it on the spot. Because when you are flying, you have to get permission to land – this is these stupid local body laws and Resource Management Act and everything else.”
But the idiocy didn’t stop there. Police and the mining “experts” they were consulting decided to buy $70,000 worth of tubing to stick down the bore hole to take air samples, but the tubing they purchased was plastic.
“They were flying this plastic piping in by the helicopter load, repeatedly, and each time they were having to land kilometres away. It seriously delayed the rescue efforts. You’re right, if people had got into that mine within the first few hours they could have quickly sussed out what was going on and got straight back out again, but because of these delays it was stopped. And the police, and fire people, and this whole issue of taking control of the site away from the workers, I think it caused a lot of extra problems.
“The police couldn’t even set up a proper communication base, so they borrowed the communication stuff from the helicopter pilots so they could communicate with everybody.”
But while police and bureaucrats fiddled, underneath the mountain the caves burned, with a devastating impact on the plastic tubes being used to get air samples.
“When they were putting the tube down to get the readings for the safety – this wasn’t made public – but when they were putting it down, kilometres of tube, it just kept melting, it kept melting, and they couldn’t get readings. They said publicly they were getting readings and it wasn’t safe, but they weren’t getting anything, the tubes all melted. They used plastic tubes instead of steel! About $70,000 worth of plastic tube all melting in a pile of their own fumes when they tried sticking them down the hole.”
When police told the media “the gas readings are off the chart”, the Commission will have to ask the question, “Is that because you were actually sampling burning plastic fumes?”
This revelation goes a long way to explaining why Police and Pike River coal management refused to release details of actual gas readings to the media and the wider public: they didn’t have any reliable readings. Had the public and the media known at the time, they may have gone ballistic.
The man connected to the helicopter operation has told HIS the authorities intimidated miners’ families into silence:
“You know how those families on the news were fuming that the police stopped them from getting in? They knew a lot more than the public knew. They were basically told, ‘If you stir things up, you won’t get your Christmas pay’. The threat to go into receivership was a way to shut them up, but the company knew they were going into receivership anyway because they didn’t have any money.”
That harsh allegation is independently echoed by the woman from the close-knit mining community.
“Pike River Coal has put the clampers on the families. And the police have been doing a lot of pushing with the families as well, telling them to ease off, if you get where I’m coming from. They’re very dominant in how they’ve been doing it. Two or three of them there who’ve lost their partners, they’ve told me the same thing: Peter Whittall, they’d deal with any day, but they feel one cop in particular is very pushy, saying to them,
‘Oh, you don’t want to do this’, or ‘You don’t want to stir the public up’, all this kind of stuff.”
She tells HIS last month’s story has had a huge impact, and the families are wanting answers. She has a theory of her own about the final moments of some of the men.
“Have you been down the Pike shaft? I have. And many others. I’m right into old closed mines in particular, and search them out. I always find that when I’m getting a bit light headed or my eyes are getting sore I turn around and come out, because I’m getting to the gas. I’m a sort of ballsy b**ch.
“When the first explosion happened, and the air was going in and then the air stopped flowing through the actual air shaft – I reckon what’s happened is that one or two of those miners have got into those air ventilations, and that’s why the air was restricted from going into that mine.
Because they are pretty solid onto those walls, those pipes, even with the explosion. Now I reckon a couple have got into there.
“Now subsequently Police made a decision to stop the air from getting into the mine, then the pipe fell off the wall in the third explosion. Now, for it to collapse off the wall there has to be weight in it. I reckon those guys were in there. With that first explosion the guys may have had broken bones, shattered rib-cages, so they couldn’t make it very far. But they could have got into those shafts in agony and pain, but not been able to make it out.
“The Police had no place in there. They had no idea what they were doing,” she laments quietly.
That too is a question many hope the Commission of Inquiry will make a serious effort to answer.