Any miner who managed the 100 metre vertical climb up the “emergency” escape route from the Pike River coal mine would then have faced a three to four hour slog through steep, untracked bush to find help, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the mine disaster heard on day six of hearings.
Mark Smith, a West Coast engineer contracted by the Department of Conservation (DoC) to liaise with Pike River Coal, said the company had talked of putting a track through to the top of the ventilation shaft – a laddered route that was the only means of emergency egress from the mine if the 2.3km entrance tunnel was impassable. However no application to DOC – which controls the land over the Pike coalfield – was ever made to build the track.
Pike had also talked of constructing an emergency shelter near the top of the ventilation shaft, but never took action.
Ironically, it has only been since the company went broke that a 6.5km walking track has been cut up the mountainside to the top of the shaft. The company’s receivers ordered the work to enable the monitoring of gas levels underground.
Smith reiterated the evidence of DoC worker Craig Jones at last week’s hearings, that Pike had planned to build a second emergency egress route, but mine development was so slow that this never occurred. Asked whether DoC raised any concerns about the fact that the second egress was never built, Smith replied that he “had no reason to be concerned. We are not underground miners. We had no knowledge or experience on which to base any concerns.”
It was “up to Pike to manage that issue and do as they saw fit”, said Smith, who was one of four DoC and Westland District Council officials to go underground at Pike three days before the explosion.
Smith said Pike’s initial access agreement with DoC had required a trial mining phase, to enable the department to monitor land subsidence on the surface. Instead, at Pike’s instigation that arrangement was changed to a three-phase approach whereby the company would proceed with mining a small “bridging” panel, followed by a commissioning panel, and then a larger trial mining panel. However Pike never got as far as the trial panel, which would have been developed in the area of the mine where it intended to build the second egress route.
Smith said the three-phase approach was sought by Pike in September 2009, because it wanted to get coal out early “for cash reasons”, and to test out its hydraulic coal mining equipment.
In other evidence heard yesterday, Department of Labour workplace health and safety policy manager James Murphy confirmed that an approved code of practice (ACOP) governing safety standards had never been developed for underground mining – despite ACOPs being envisaged as a critical part of the regulatory framework when the Health and Safety in Employment Act was passed in 1992.
Although a number of regulatory agencies had oversight of Pike – as of other underground mines – no single agency was required to approve the planning and design of the mine. Counsel for the commission, James Wilding, put it to Murphy that this was a “regulatory gap”. Murphy agreed that it was, but not one that his policy unit had had brought to its attention.
Murphy told the commission that by the time of the Pike explosion, there were only two OSH mines inspectors in the country, compared with seven in 1998 when the dedicated mines inspectorate was absorbed into OSH.
Today the commission will hear evidence from an OSH inspector, with Peter Whittall appearing later in the day or tomorrow.