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New Zealand PM apologizes for mine disaster; minister resigns

11-05-2012 14:03 BJT

WELLINGTON, Nov. 5 (Xinhua) -- A report from the official inquiry into the deaths of 29 men in New Zealand's Pike River mine disaster two years ago was released Monday taking the job of one government minister immediately.

Labor Minister Kate Wilkinson announced her resignation shortly after the publication of the report from the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy.

"The Pike River Mine tragedy of Nov. 19, 2010 happened on my watch as Minister of Labor," Wilkinson said in a statement.

She said reports from the then Department of Labor, which oversaw mine safety, had never advised her of concerns about the department's ability to administer health and safety rules.

However, with the deaths of 29 men, she said tendering her resignation was "the right and honorable thing to do."

Prime Minister John Key welcomed the report, saying, "I speak on behalf of the government when I say I regret deeply what has happened, in terms of the lives lost and suffering caused."

The Royal Commission had made it very clear that much of the fault for the tragedy lay with Pike River Coal Ltd., the company that operated the mine, Key said in a statement.

"Because it did not follow good management and best practice principles, its health and safety systems were inadequate," he said.

"However, the Royal Commission also says the regulatory environment was not effective over a long period of time.

"On behalf of the government, I apologize to the families, friends and loved ones of the deceased men for the role this lack of regulatory effectiveness played in the tragedy."

Key said the Royal Commission found the immediate cause of the tragedy was a large methane explosion, but that the tragedy was preventable.

"The commission found there were multiple operational and systemic issues with Pike River Coal. The company had a history of over-promising and under-delivering. Coal production was years behind schedule, and a lack of money was driving the company to find further funding," said Key.

The business was new, and its systems, including those for health and safety, were in development.

"Pike River lost sight of its aim to be a productive and safe mine as the drive for production intensified."

A second factor was the regulatory environment under which the Pike River Mine operated.

"Under successive governments, since 1992, the influence and reach of the mining inspectorate was eroded.

"The commission found that while the Health and Safety in Employment Act appropriately placed primary responsibility for health and safety on the employer, this was seen by the Department of Labor as somehow reducing its responsibility to actively administer the legislation," said Key.

"The Royal Commission found the Department of Labor itself did not have the focus, capacity or strategies to ensure Pike was meeting its legal responsibilities under health and safety laws."

Key said the government accepted there were systemic failures in the regulatory regime across successive governments.

"This meant that failures by Pike River Coal were not picked up and remedied as they should have been."

The commission made 16 recommendations, covering administrative reform, stronger regulation, changes to mining legislation and emergency management, which the government would be "broadly accepting" and would work to implement as quickly as possible.

Key appointed Attorney-General and Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson as acting Minister of Labor.

Wilkinson retains her other portfolios as Minister of Conservation and Minister of Food Safety as well as Associate Minister of Immigration.

Pike River Coal Ltd. and its former chief executive and drilling company VLI Drilling Pty. Ltd. are facing a raft of charges in connection to alleged health and safety failures concerning the disaster.

The bodies of the 29 men have never been retrieved from the mine, which has remained too hazardous for a recovery operation since the disaster.

Only two men who were working in the mine at the time managed to escape.

New Zealand's worst ever mining disaster was the Brunner coal mine explosion, which killed 65 miners in 1896. Before Pike River, the most recent mining disaster was the 1967 Strongman mine explosion, which killed 19 miners.


Editor:Lu Jiaying |Source: Xinhua

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