An explosion at the remote Pike River mine on 19 November 2010 killed 29 men. To mark the fifth anniversary of this disaster, a feature has been prepared on the NZHistory website outlining the background to the explosion and its aftermath.
We can look back with disbelief that such a terrible industrial accident could happen in the 21st century. The management of the Pike River mine certainly believed that their mining methods, using modern technology, were safer and more efficient than the more traditional way underground mines had been run in the past. But information on the disaster bears a tragic resemblance to previous explosions.
One of the major problems in underground coal mining is methane gas, continuously expelled from coal seams, and potentially explosive when mixed with air. In New Zealand a total of 211 men have been killed in nine separate methane explosions since coal mining started in the late 19th century. All the explosions can be attributed to faulty ventilation combined with poor safety practices.
The nine explosions are widely spaced over 130 years, including Kaitangata (1879, 34 deaths), Brunner (1896, 65 deaths), Huntly (1914, 43 deaths), Strongman (1967, 19 deaths) and Pike River (2010, 29 deaths). Successive Commissions of Enquiry have recommended improved safety measures, but it appears that the dangers of methane explosions are gradually forgotten as each generation of experienced mine workers retires. Continuing vigilance is needed to ensure that younger miners and mine managers are aware of the hidden dangers of underground mining.
The report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy makes depressing reading. There is not a single, simple cause, but rather a cumulative succession of errors and misjudgements. It was certainly intended to run the mine with state-of-the-art methane monitoring, but shortcuts were taken because of construction delays and mounting debts, and the gas monitoring equipment was never properly installed and calibrated. There had been many warnings of high methane levels and small explosions, but these were ignored. The Inspector of Mines was on the verge of closing the mine, but was assured by the management that everything was under control.
The best way we can remember the 29 men killed at Pike River – and the others killed in the preceding eight mine explosions – is to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. Underground coal mines should not operate unless they are regularly inspected and conform to the highest safety standards.