NZ hears testimony on mining blast that killed 29

July 11, 2011 - 9:44 AM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Financial pressures may have led a New Zealand coal mining operation to overextend itself before an explosion killed 29 workers last year, an energy executive testified Monday at an inquiry into the country's worst mine disaster in decades.

The executive spoke as an expert witness on the first day of testimony in the probe of what caused November's methane-fueled explosions at the Pike River mine.

The inquiry aims to unearth any problems with safety procedures or rescue operations. The panel could recommend changes to New Zealand's mining industry.

Two weeks ago, work crews re-entered the mine for the first time since the accident to try to recover the bodies. That operation will likely take months as crews inch their way down the mine, setting up air seals and extracting dangerous gasses as they go.

Don Elder, chief executive of Contact Energy, told a three-member commission Monday that Pike River Coal Ltd. was in a risky financial position because it didn't have other mines to help generate cash-flow.

Soon after the explosion, the Pike River company was forced into bankruptcy. Receivers are now trying to sell the mine and its assets.

Elder said that Pike River's mining methods — which include using high-pressure jets of water — require highly-trained specialists and that the company's feasibility study would not have been approved at Contact Energy.

However, under cross-examination, Elder acknowledged the safety record at his own company was also "unacceptable" after Contact Energy was judged to have broken health and safety rules three times in the past 11 years.

Pike River's former chairman John Dow was among those listening to the royal commission hearing in the town of Greymouth, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) southwest of the mine. Neither he nor the receivers made any comment Monday.

Many grieving family members were also at the inquiry. Bernie Monk, whose son Michael died in the disaster, told The Associated Press in an interview this week that the families want to find out the truth about what went wrong and to make sure it never happens again.

Monk said the families are also anxiously following the progress of the underground recovery operation.

"Getting the guys out and finishing the royal commission are the only things that will stop the hurting," Monk said.

Neither will happen quickly.

The inquiry is divided into four stages and could last eight more months, after background fact-finding began earlier this year. In all, 12 mine and energy experts are scheduled to speak during the first phase of the inquiry.

Monk said New Zealand has not learned from previous mining disasters and has taken the wrong approach in recent years by loosening mining regulations.

"To be honest, we are nearly back to a Third World situation with mining here," he said. "This is not what New Zealanders want or expect."

A January inquest concluded all 29 missing miners must have died within minutes of the first explosion last November. Two miners managed to escape after the initial blast.

There have been a total of 210 deaths in New Zealand mines over the past 115 years. The last large deadly explosion before Pike River killed 19 at nearby Strongman mine in 1967.