5 Jul 2013

Call for NZOG to step up over payout

10:26 pm on 5 July 2013

A spokesperson for some Pike River families says New Zealand Oil & Gas should step up and compensate them over the deaths of 29 workers.

Pike River Coal Ltd has been ordered to pay a fine of $760,000 and reparation of $3.41 million over the deaths caused by blasts at a West Coast mine in November 2010.

The sentence was handed down by Judge Jane Farish at the Greymouth District Court on Friday against the company, which was earlier convicted of nine charges of failing to ensure the men's safety.

It has been revealed there is only $156,000 left from a $2 million insurance payment to Pike River Coal Ltd, which is now in receivership. The judge said this equated to $5000 for each of the families and fell well short of the sort of compensation they should be paid.

Judge Farish said the company's biggest secured shareholder, New Zealand Oil & Gas, was in a position to pay reparation to the families and two men who survived the explosions, either through its shareholders or its directors.

A spokesperson for the families, Bernie Monk, said this is the least the company can do.

"It's almost laughable to hear them say last year how many millions of profits that they made over and above a disastrous year that they had. And if they walk away from this, God help New Zealand."

Mr Monk said he is angry that the directors of Pike River Coal were nowhere to be seen during the sentencing.

Judge Farish appeared visibly upset on Friday when talking about the ongoing impact the deaths had on their families and hoped that the fine would provide a strong deterrent.

On Thursday, she said it was "morally unjust" the way Pike River Coal Ltd had been able to fold soon after the disaster and escape having to pay anything towards the families' welfare.

But New Zealand Oil & Gas on Friday all but ruled out paying reparation. Chief executive Andrew Knight told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme the company has already given a lot of money to Pike River employees, families, the West Coast community and for tunnel recovery work.

Mr Knight said he needs to listen to Judge Farish's ruling to understand where she drew her conclusions from.

Appeal for Govt help

The families of Pike River victims also want the Government to step in and give them money in the same way their lawyer says people were compensated in the Cave Creek tragedy in 1995.

Thirteen teenagers and one DoC staff member were killed when a DoC viewing platform at Cave Creek near Punakaiki on the West Coast collapsed. In 1997, the Government paid the families a total of just over $2.5 million.

Lawyer Nicholas Davidson, QC, said on Friday that victim impact reports show many of the Pike families, and in particular those with children, are now in a highly constrained financial position.

Mr Davidson told Checkpoint the Government has the opportunity to set up a straightforward process to assess payments for them.

"We want the Government at least to think about it. The families are not grasping at this, they're not pushing for it. This has just had quite a dramatic effect on them to realise that, ultimately, no one is carrying responsibility for what happened here. And that really is the truth of it."

Mr Davidson said it would be extraordinary if no compensation is handed out and said New Zealand Oil and Gas needs to think about more than just commercial interests and consider paying something to the families.

Neville Rockhouse worked in the mine and lost his son Ben in the blasts. His other son, Daniel, survived. Mr Rockhouse said while no amount of money will bring Ben back, compensation would make a difference.

Mr Rockhouse told Morning Report it was important for victim impact statements from the families to be read in court on Thursday so that the public could understand that the victims were more than just names.

West-Coast Green MP Kevin Hague said the Government has consistently said it will do whatever it can to meet the needs of the families, and it now needs to.

Good first step - union

The Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union said the sentence is a good first step, but the mine's owners still need to be held accountable.

Assistant national secretary Ged O'Connell said he wants to see them charged with corporate manslaughter.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment originally brought the charges against Pike River Coal Ltd and said the penalties are the culmination of a significant investigative and legal process.

However, it said no sentence would ever adequately reflect the pain felt by the families of those who died.

Health and safety lawyer Stephanie Grieve said there is likely to be a feeling after the sentencing that justice has not been done. Ms Grieve told Morning Report the reparation of $5000 for each family is unusual, because companies normally have more insurance cover to pay reparations. She said there is no way to extract more money from Pike River Coal Ltd.