Expert says he warned of problems at NZ coal mine

July 14, 2011 - 4:14 AM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A former chief inspector of New Zealand's coal mines said Thursday that he repeatedly warned of ventilation problems at the Pike River mine and called for it to be shut down before an explosion last year killed 29 people.

Harry Bell told an official inquiry into the Nov. 29 disaster that he had warned mine managers that their plans to have a single entrance to the mine were "madness" because it would not allow for the proper ventilation of volatile gasses like methane.

Bell said he was so concerned about the situation he called a government mining inspector.

"I said, 'Stop them ... until they fix the ventilation,'" Bell told the hearing.

But while some changes were made, Bell said, the operation continued.

His testimony on the fourth day of hearings was the toughest so far against the Pike River operation. The commission has previously heard testimony from others concerned about safety in the mine and financial pressures facing the mining company.

Bell, whose nephew was killed in the explosion, was called as an expert witness and was not working in any official capacity in late 2008, when he said he raised red flags. However, he had previously worked at the mine as a tunnel supervisor for about eight months, beginning in September 2007.

Bell said that after he had finished working for the company, a worker at the mine got in touch with him and expressed concerns about a series of 10 small gas explosions triggered by tunneling machinery.

Bell said it was clear the ventilation system was inadequate and he urged managers to fix it by adding a ventilation shaft before they continued extending the mine.

The former mine inspector also criticized the lack of regular inspections at New Zealand mines following regulatory changes in the late 1990s.

A three-member commission is probing the cause of last year's methane-fueled explosions at the Pike River mine. The commission could recommend changes to New Zealand's mining industry.