The Greymouth courtroom filled to capacity for the long-awaited evidence of Harry Bell, the 77-year-old who began in the coal mining industry as a “rope boy” in 1948 and ended up as chief inspector of coal mines. Bell, whose nephew Allan Dixon was killed in the explosion and who has been helping the families of the Pike 29 with their inquiries, delivered unvarnished testimony of inadequate ventilation, repeated gas ignitions and flawed mine design.
“I could see they were going to have a problem, but no-one would listen,” he told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into last November’s mine disaster, which killed 29 men.
From September 2007 until April 2008, Bell worked at Pike as a tunnelling supervisor for McConnell Dowell (MacDow), the firm contracted to drill the 2.3km stone access drive up through the faulted mountainside to the coal seam. He had earlier seen tender documents showing that there were to be two stone drives through the area known as the Hawera Fault, which would have provided adequate ventilation in a zone that was likely to have high methane levels.
But in April 2008, not long before he was due to finish up and go on an overseas trip, he was “shocked” to be told that Pike River Coal had decided there would be only one drive through the fault. “There was no longer to be a ventilation shaft in the stone, which would have provided an adequate ventilation circuit. Instead, construction of that ventilation shaft was to be delayed until they went into the fault and into the … gassy seam,” he told commission on day four of hearings.
Bell told MacDow that this proposal was “not tenable” for safety reasons, and that tunnelling should be stopped until the ventilation issue was resolved. “I told Joe Edwards [MacDow engineering superintendent] that if I was still the chief inspector of coal mines I would not let them go through the fault with a single drive under any circumstances.”
Pike River Coal “did not seem to understand the gas risks”, and that ventilation was essential even at this relatively early stage of the mine’s development. About 1.5km of the uphill tunnel had been drilled at that stage, and the ventilation system was struggling to clear the fumes from shot-firing, and required regular patch-ups. It was completely inadequate to deal with methane, said Bell.
Edwards promised to speak to Pike River Coal about the issue, and Bell drew up two options to improve the ventilation system. Although Pike promised to take action, nothing was done, prompting Bell to take his concerns directly to the company’s technical manager.
“I told him that it would be nonsensical – madness, as I described it – to go through the fault with a single drive entry because of the gas risks. This was particularly important in this mine because the sluggish ventilation which existed, and the uphill design of the tunnel, made the essential removal of ventilation gas even more difficult. There was no doubt in my mind that a ventilation circuit had to be set up before driving through the fault.”
Again, he was told the situation would be dealt with.
Months later, in December 2008, Bell was told by a MacDow supervisor that there had been 10 gas ignitions in the drive over the previous fortnight. He immediately notified the Department of Labour’s occupational health and safety inspector, advising him to put a stop to work on the tunnel until the ventilation issue had been dealt with.
“I told the inspector that he could tell the mine staff that I was the whistle-blower, as I was furious and alarmed that this had happened after the warnings and discussion prior to me going to Bhutan … I said, ‘Stop them bloody mining until they fix the ventilation’. He later learned that the labour inspector had told Pike to stop using the roadheader – a machine used to cut into stone – because it was causing the ignitions. But “the core problem was the ventilation. The methane shouldn’t have been there.”
Bell said the ignitions had occurred when the tunnelling workers reached the “shatter zone” – an area of cracked and ruptured rock adjacent to the Hawera Fault. Shatter zones are known as methane “reservoirs” because gas tends to move into the cavities, leading to the risk of outbursts – sudden eruptions of gas and coal dust. Careful management of ventilation in such areas is vital.
In cross examination by Kristy McDonald, QC, counsel for the Department of Labour and various other government agencies, it emerged that the ignitions meant Pike was classified as a “gassy” mine – a description that is sharply at odds with the company’s claim in its 2007 prospectus that the coal field had “low to moderate” gas levels.
Like the previous witness, Robin Hughes – also a former chief inspector of coal mines – Bell said he had strongly opposed the deregulation of health and safety in the industry, and the abolition of the specialist mines inspectorate staffed by men with deep experience of running mines and who were highly respected in the industry.
During a brief period in the early 2000s, when he was asked by the Department of Labour to take a short term contract as an inspector, he was told he must do fewer on-site inspections and more audits of mines. “You cannot audit a mine on paper. You need to go underground and make direct observations on a regular basis.”
Deregulation, which left safety in the hands of mine owners, was “a recipe for disaster”. Under the old regime, Bell said, inspectors reviewed the operational and financial details of proposed new mines, and made recommendations on whether licences should be approved.
Pike’s mine plans “should never have been approved”, and would not have been under the old system.