8 Apr 2021

No more funding for Pike re-entry, commitments met - Little

From Checkpoint, 5:50 pm on 8 April 2021

There is no more money available from the government for the Pike River recovery, but it did not overcommit or underdeliver on promises, Pike River Recovery Minister Andrew Little says. 

A public statement last week, issued by the Pike River Family Reference Group, said families had reluctantly accepted a government decision to close the recovery project.

Little told Checkpoint today: "We made a commitment to recover the drift and do the forensic work and examination required to assist the police in their investigation. That pledge was signed up to in 2017 before the election ... that was a pledge drafted by the families.

"We spent 10 months examining and evaluating and doing all the risk assessments required to do the job and at the end of that I made a public announcement confirming that we were going to re-enter the drift and at that point I confirmed that the commitment was just to re-enter the drift. I have had to go back twice to Cabinet to get top-up funding to make sure we complete that and fulfill the commitment that we made - that is the limit of the funding.

"I know people will be saying 'just do a feasibility study, it won't cost much, or cost much more to go futher'. Actually, we know from this whole project that what we thought might be time taken to do it and the cost taken to do it isn't actually the case. It takes a lot more time, it takes a lot more expense.

"I'm sorry that having fulfilled the commitment that we made, as regrettable as it is, I have access to no further funding to continue on to do stuff that we haven't previously committed to."

He said he had told the families previously he was not committing to going further and that funding was "not a blank cheque".

Bernie Monk - who lost his son in the disaster - has rejected the minister's claim.

He told Checkpoint that 23 of the 29 families support a feasibility study on going further inside the mine, while two want the mine to be re-sealed.

Little said work at the mine was not finished.

Pike River Recovery Agency engineers work to remove the 30m barrier and dewater the infrastructure at the mine site.

Pike River Recovery Agency engineers work to remove the 30m barrier and dewater the infrastructure at the mine site in mid-2019. Photo: Pike River Recovery Agency / Supplied

"Police are funding drilling six extra bore holes so they can get to the ventilation fan ... to get the further evidence required. So the police haven't closed out their bit to do the best they can to secure a possible prosecution."

The government did consider a feasibility study to go further than the rock fall, but it was clear there would be no funding to go any further past the drift, he said.

He had to stand by his previous commitment.

"I have gone, I think, above and beyond to make sure that the money is there to fulfill the commitment we made, which is to recover the drift. We have done it properly, we have done it safely, it has taken way longer than we thought. We thought it would be a 12- to 18-month project to recover the drift. It has taken a lot longer."

There had not been any overcommitment and underdelivery, he said.

Such a project had huge uncertainties, and those involved did not know how difficult it would be and there was no guarantee of any particular outcome, Little said.

"The families were let down, and given the way their loved ones died, and given the failure of the state agency and given the failure of the Pike Coal Mine, given the way the prosecution against officers of the company was handled - and frankly they were diddled out of it - actually there was a moral obligation to honour the request they made which was to recover the drift, to try to do the best to find further evidence that would support a further prosecution, and that's what we've done. That was an act of justice, it was to assist their grieving."

He had not been told of the prospect of any prosecutions nor would he - that was a matter for the police, who had to remain independent, Little said.

"They are still, as I understand it, carrying out their investigation... there's still a lot of evidence gathering that is ongoing."

However, the possibility of a prosecution was not "closed off".