A second, more powerful explosion today rocked the Pike River coal mine in Greymouth, New Zealand. This event forced government and company officials to declare that the 29 miners are surely dead. The initial blast occurred on Friday, Nov 19 deep in the mine and rescue attempts had been thwarted by dangerous gas levels. The country’s prime minister John Key said,
“This has been the news that all of New Zealand has been dreading. From the moment of the first explosion, [mine rescuers] have spent every waking hour tirelessly working, searching for a way to bring these men home alive. That was not to be. Their enormous effort can not go unmarked.”
Australia’s Herald Sun reports that the police superintendent in charge of the mine rescue had the task of reporting the grave news.
“Supt Knowles appeared distraught by the news as he delivered it. ‘There’s another explosion underground in the mine. It was extremely severe. And based on the expert evidence that I’ve been given and the men who were present, based on the rescue teams that were with me, it is our belief that no-one has survived. And everyone will have perished. I was at the mine when it happened. The blast was horrific.’”
The news accounts from the international media outlets bring back memories of what we heard and read just 7 months ago following the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine. That explosion on April 5 also claimed the lives of 29 men and left hundreds of the other victims. With this latest disaster of the same number, New Zealand’s Minister of Labor Kate Wilkinson said:
“Some pretty hard questions have got to be asked. The families need answers, and we, as a country, need answers. Something has gone drastically wrong – and we need to find out what it is, what happened and we need to do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Our own President Obama said on April 10 following the Upper Big Branch disaster, we will:
“thoroughly investigate this tragedy and demand accountability. …we must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that all our miners are as safe as possible so that a disaster like this doesn’t happen again.”
New Zealand’s Energy and Resource Minister Gerry Brownlee said,
“There’s going to be a range of inquiries that will begin fairly immediately. In the long term of course everyone will want to know what happened up there.”
Similarly, US Labor Secretary Solis said in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster,
“The investigative team will now begin its important work to determine exactly what happened, and [we will look to identify] actions the administration can take to prevent further tragedies in this industry.”
The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union has posted information on its website about the Pike River mine, including personal descriptions and photos of the 29 men. About 80 of the workers employed at the mine are EPMU members. The union’s national secretary Andrew Little is calling for an inquiry that is different than the typical Labor Department investigation. They want one that includes
“a public hearing in front of a senior judge and top experts.”
This sounds familiar, too. The UMWA, some family-member victims and the press also called for a public hearing as part of the investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster (here, here, here, here); no such inquiry method has been scheduled.
The EPMU is also resurrecting their call to give miners the right to elect their own safety representative called “check inspectors” who have special responsibilities for safety. An article on TVNZ offers the EPMU’s rationale for the “check inspector” provision:
“They’re in the mine, they’re down there with every shift, they keep an eye on every aspect of health and safety. …Adding a check inspector to every shift just gives that extra degree of scrutiny and comfort.”
During debate about the check inspector provisions, the management of the Pike River coal mine opposed them. The company said it is
“totally inappropriate and not required. Under such a regime there is a very high likelihood of abuse of such a position which will eventually ensure that health and safety will fail in that workplace.”
As is often the case with workplace disasters such as this, workers see signs of trouble. The father of deceased miner Brendon Palmer, also worked at the Pike River coal mine. Mr. Marty Palmer said he reported gas problems when he finished his shift at 8 am on the morning of the explosion. What the company did to address this and other problems at the mine are yet to be revealed.
For extensive coverage on the Pike River disaster, see the NZ Herald.