This week's Pike River hearings have focused on former CEO Peter Whittall. Once showered with public acclaim, Whittall is now in a very deep hole indeed, dug in part by his own denial

So the first stage of the Pike River Royal Commission has wrapped up in Greymouth today, and what a difference a few months has made for Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittal.

Remember those days and weeks after the explosions, when Whittall's sincere grief and dogged commitment to a rescue had the nation praising him as a hero? Votes flooded into the New Zealand Herald as they sought their readers' nominations for New Zealander of the Year. "Courage and leadership" were the words used. Although his number one reputation didn't last, as recently as last month, Readers' Digest staff nominated Whittall as one of the the country's 100 most trusted and readers voted him at 68th.

But the hints of his demise could be seen even back in those Herald articles, when the paper refused to include him in their list, "because of ongoing concerns about the future of the Pike River mine and the findings of the Royal Commission".

Journalists paying attention to what happened at Pike River have long suspected that public opinion will eventually turn against Whittall. And this week, as he spoke to the commission, the former CEO and mine manager, looked resigned.

While he defended his record, the public heard of advice that the gas removal was inadequate, production targets had been missed and cashflow has become "an issue", there was no easy escape route and no trial evacuations had been held.

What's staggering, is that after this week's testimony he could step outside the court and say that Pike River Coal's reputation had not been tarnished:

"I think it shows that the company has taken every conceivable step and employed every available consultant to provide the best possible advice."

It seems an incredulous claim given the commission's hearings thus far, but then Whittall's line this week was consistent with what he said when first asked about mine safety (on Q+A) just three days after the second explosion, when the miners were finally presumed dead. He said then that there was "continuous monitoring" at Pike River, this week explaining that monitors on fixed and mobile plant fed data to the control room in real time.

But as mining expert Dave Feickert said at the time, "There’s continuous monitoring and there’s continuous monitoring". What as missing was a tube bundling system, which is regarded as standard and best practice elsewhere.

On Q+A last November and in Greymouth this week Whittall said all the rest was coming... later... when the mine was bigger... when the scale of production and profits warranted it. Tragically, tube bundling was budgeted for the 2010/11 year.

Too late. As Feickert said, "Well, I would have thought in that mine you would start off with a tube-bundle system".

Whittall said in November that the mine was safe, and gas and ventilation issues were never ignored but "worked on, constantly". Which doesn't seem terribly convincing, as I would have thought you'd want a mine where ventilation just secure and didn't have to be worked on at all.

The terrible impression left last year and reinforced this week is one of a mine under financial pressure that was cutting corners. As families' spokesman Bernie Monk has said today, the mine was obviously unsafe.

Thing is, miners know how to mine safely. The technology and industry tecnniques are well-known. There's no reason for people to die underground these days. The only reason that people die is when things are not done properly.

As this sinks into the public consciousness, Whittall's once heroic reputation - not to mention his liberty - is at risk. The only thing that might save him is that New Zealand regulations have been so weak, that all these inadequacies didn't amount to a breach of safety laws. Or so it seems.

With the commission on break now, surely the government must accept that mine safety in this country has fallen below acceptable levels and it's time for laws to be changed and fast.

Comments (7)

by Frank Macskasy on July 22, 2011
Frank Macskasy

To be fair, it's difficult to comment as the Commission is yet to hear all witnesses and consider all evidence. Going purely by an incomplete perception alone, I offer these observations;

 

* The changes to legislation in the early 1990s by a reform-obsessed National Government  seems to have created the proverbial ticking time bomb. As with the leaky/rotting homes syndrome, the de-regulation of mining and safety has resulted in inevitable disaster.

 

* The Pike River Mine company seems to have operated using short cuts, taking advantage of the de-regulation of the 1990s. And like other hostile environments such as the sea and outer space, mining is an unforgiving activity where  eventually good luck will run out.

 

* Whilst National may have facilitated the environment where all the elements came together for an eventual catastrophe - it shouldn't be forgotten that Labour had nine years to address this problem and re-instate mines inspectors. They obviously did not.

 

* And lastly, where was the miners' union? Why did the remaining safety inspector(s) not blow the whistle? (I'm not even going to ask about the media, which seems to have fallen asleep-at-the-wheel, only to awaken when there are suitable crime stories to report, or stranded penguins that go off the Cuteness Scale...)  And Bernie Monk stated that the mine was "obviously unsafe".

 

Yet, no one spoke up.

 

I have this nagging feeling that society (via a Facebook village mob, again?) and a headline-hungry media will look toward a scapegoat.  The truth, though, is that complicity may spread far and wide on this matter.

by Eleanor Black on July 23, 2011
Eleanor Black

I agree the Pike River 29 were victims of government de-regulation in the '90s, but as you say Frank, the Labour government did nothing to remedy it. Indeed, I believe the number of mine inspectors fell even further. Perhaps someone else can confirm that.

Not so sure about the union criticism. I think the union has raised concerns about mine safety in the past.

As for meda, perhaps. Not sure whether local Coast media covered these issues. Certainly smaller newsrooms mean fewer journos to cover beats such as this. But are you sure there weren't news stories of warnings at the time the reforms were made? Just because you didn't see/don't recall stories doesn't mean they weren't reported

by Dave Feickert on July 23, 2011
Dave Feickert

Fair comment Tim, not just because you quote me! The problem for Peter Whittall is that, first, as there was no chief inspector of mines, he had to take on the real role of commentator/organiser on the scene of the disaster; normally the mine manager should have no time to do any of that but be working with the mines rescue team on the rescue/recovery. The official spokesperson, a police superintendent was out of his depth throughout. Not a single DOL inspector was anywhere around to make a comment, either. Well there were only two left. There were no comments either from a worker check inspector, as they had been abolished.

Now, the inquiry has to get the tech details from the one leg of the three-legged stool remaining and that is, literally, Peter Whittall. To its credit, Pike River Coal had severely criticised the existing regulatory framework in its 2008 submission to the DOL. The DOL did nothing; neither did the Minister. Now 29 of the country's sons, including some from overseas still lie in that cold mine, sealed by a rock fall that will be extremely dangerous to mine around, to find another very dangerous mine atmosphere waiting.

While we still do not know the proximate cause, we do know much better the factors creatingan inevitability of this terrible tragedy. As I said early on, a mine manager or two cannot keep the men safe with their words and good intentions; it doesn't matter how many consultants they employ for special jobs, or how many engineering degrees they have between them. The men have to be recruited to the task and the professional inspectors must oversee the safety project, which must run day in day out; for a coal mine is a very unforgiving environment. But we know enough now to prevent death and destruction, as Tim has said.

by MikeM on July 23, 2011
MikeM

 

Frank: "Yet, no one spoke up."

Social engineering?  Someone else's problem?  Risk/Benefit?  Surely they wouldn't let us in here if it were unsafe?  That'll be interesting to learn about when this concludes.

Frank: "I have this nagging feeling that society (via a Facebook village mob, again?) and a headline-hungry media will look toward a scapegoat.  The truth, though, is that complicity may spread far and wide on this matter."

I've recently re-read the Cave Creek Inquiry Report, which occurred much more closely to the 1990s de-regulation, and its terms of reference were defined when that government was still presiding, and famously put the ultimate problem down to systematic failure.  I was too young to appreciate everything that occurred at the time, but something that popped out when I read it a few months ago were the ongoing references to acceptence of responsibility and accountability, or lack of it.  In particular Judge Noble expressed disappointment at people at the top levels of DoC for not clearly appreciating that they might be accountable for an organisation that was demonstrably very disjointed and uncoordinated and full of people doing jobs to which they weren't suited yet still being under big work pressures to get certain jobs done, ultimately resulting in the failure of proper building practice on that occasion. From the top levels, the view seemed to be that it had been the reponsibility of the lower levels to sort themselves out, and they didn't really have a clue about the various pressures people were under, and if they'd been told then it hadn't been addressed as important.

The other thing that stood out (to me) were several references to the private sector, and how the private sector was much more suited to understand accountability and responsibility.  He actually wrote:

"I was left with the impression that these very capable people from the top levels of the department’s hierarchy simply did not seem to appreciate the concept of accountability in personal terms as it applies, for example, to the private sector. Knowing one is accountable requires consciously acting in a manner that takes account of all known pitfalls. It requires one consciously to adopt a risk analysis and risk management approach. This concept scarcely needs explanation in the private sector, where being accountable may mean loss of wages, a job, a business or profits, or damages, or some other form of financial disadvantage. But in this part of the New Zealand public sector I am left with the uneasy impression that the understanding of accountability is blurred." (from page 114 of section 1)

He may have been right, or it might have just been the way of thinking at the time, but I was reading this morning that Peter Whittall is also (apparently) deflecting responsibility because they tried very hard to make things safe and the system wasn't allowing for it to be any safer, or something like that, and so they ran it as is with a higher risk.  That's what I read at least.

I don't know Peter Whittall should be considered most responsible, or if it's just another systematic failure consequential from 1990s deregulation and neglection of successive governments to fix it.  My gut (and unqualified) feeling is the latter, even if he holds some responsibility, and I think what it demonstrates is that things are far more complex than just expecting accountability and "having jobs on the line" to sort out all problems and make things safe.  Hopefully we'll get useful conclusions out of this such as why nobody reported the problems that they must have known about, why the union let its workers continue to work in conditions it knew were unsafe, why the management continued to operate a mine that they must have known wasn't unsafe, why successive governments appeared to ignore the notifications they were given that the regulatory framework for mining was inadequate, and so on. I can think of a heap of likely reasons for all of these, but maybe it just needs to be written down in a way that can't be ignored.

by Frank Macskasy on July 23, 2011
Frank Macskasy

 

"Not so sure about the union criticism. I think the union has raised concerns about mine safety in the past."

 

You may be right, Eleanor. I can only go by what came to my attention in the late '80s and 1990s. Whilst I took considerable interest in the "reforms" of that era, it's quite possible that warnings were given, but went unheeded.

 

I understand that at least one perceptive gentleman took note of what was happening in the buiilding industry in the early 1990s, (regarding de-regulation) and made a prediction that the consequences would be expensive and wide-ranging. I forget his name, but remember the context of his unheeded warnings. His warnings certainly bore rotten fruit.

 

The local Union  may have given warnings at the time National undertook it's ill-considered de-regulation. Though that begs the question, did the Union take their concerns to the in-coming Labour government, post-1999 general election? If not, why not?

 

If the Labour government was warned, why did they not act on those warnings?

 

"As for meda, perhaps. Not sure whether local Coast media covered these issues. Certainly smaller newsrooms mean fewer journos to cover beats such as this. But are you sure there weren't news stories of warnings at the time the reforms were made? Just because you didn't see/don't recall stories doesn't mean they weren't reported."

 

Indeed. I have a friend who works in one of the daily metropolitan papers and he confirms that even the "big papers" have suffered grievously due to fewer staff to cover important issues. A cursory glance at Wellington's Dompost leaves me feeling that it is only a shadow of it's former self.

 

Of course, if there were stories in the Greymouth Evening Star which weren't picked up nationwide, then that again means that my criticisms are based on only partial information.

 

As per the caveat I gave in my post above, "Going purely by an incomplete perception alone, I offer these observations...".

 

The final outcome of the Commission may or may not support my original comments above. We'll just have to wait, I guess...

by Tim Watkin on July 25, 2011
Tim Watkin

Some great comments, thanks. Dave, lovely to have you drop by. As usual, you make great sense. While the fact Pike Rover Coal Ltd made its complaints does mitigate to some degree, I don't think it is a get out of jail free card - figuratively or literally. If you complain, but still set work standards that are ineffective, even insufficient, then all that makes clear is that you are aware of your own failings. I mean, if you feel there's a lack of oversight but carry on regardless, you must share some of the culpability.

Mike, that's a fascinating comparison... and thanks for the quotes. Judge Noble's comments perhaps reflect the feeling at that time, that the private sector was somehow inherently more accountable, because of market pressures. But those pressures are just as likely to work the other way. PRC Ltd was under financial pressure, that much we know. It's just as possible to turn Noble's words around and say 'yes, accountability can involve loss of wages, jobs, profits etc and that's exactly why a company or CEO might try like hell to avoid responsibility, or preventative action.

by Philip Grimmett on February 14, 2012
Philip Grimmett
The elephant in the room is the failure of successive governments to ensure workers and members of the public are safe. A fundamental human right in a civilized democracy,I would have thought.The influence of business at the expense of human life is reprehensible and points towards our global predicament.Good luck to you all.

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