27 Oct 2012

Uproar in court over Pike River company fine

5:12 am on 27 October 2012

There was uproar in the Greymouth District Court on Friday afternoon when a company contracted to Pike River Coal was fined $46,800 for unsafe work practices.

Angry parents yelled out and swore at executives of Valley Longwall International (VLI), which had earlier pleaded guilty to three charges brought by the Department of Labour under the Health and Safety Act for safety failures at the West Coast mine.

By pleading guilty the Australian-based company - which supplies mining equipment and services - accepted it failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its workers, three of whom were among the 29 men who died when the mine exploded in November 2010.

When the sentence was read out by Judge Jane Farish, family members outraged at what they considered the leniency of the fine erupted at Valley Longwall's chief executive, Brett Lynch, and its health and safety manager, David Carter.

Each charge carried a maximum fine of $250,000 and Crown prosecutor Brent Stanaway had urged the judge to consider imposing that penalty in each case. He said the company's failure to safety-test its drill rig and methane-sensing equipment had created a high potential for harm.

Victim's father visibly shaken

In sentencing, Judge Farish said Valley Longwall took very few steps to ensure it met the required safety standards but she took into account its unblemished safety record, its guilty plea and its genuine remorse for the deaths, as well as the reparation it paid to the families of the three men.

Outside the court Bernie Monk, who lost his son Michael in the disaster, says the only good thing to come out of the sentencing is the loss of the company's reputation.

Mr Monk says he walked up to Mr Lynch after the sentencing and told him that one day he'd see him back in court.

Neville Rockhouse, whose son Ben was one of the three VLI employees who died, told Checkpoint the fines are not much of a deterrent.

Dean Dunbar, whose 17-year-old son Joseph was one of those killed, was visibly shaken.

"They didn't maintain that drill rig for five months," Mr Dunbar said. "From what I can gather, the only methane detector wworking at that time hadn't been calibrated.

"So if this is the way Valley Longwall runs its company all around the world, we need to be real careful about who we put inside those coalmines."

Joanne Ufer says she's disappointed the court did not formally recognise the families of the victims as victims themselves.

Ms Ufer, who lost her son Josh in the disaster, says while the families might not be recognised in the eyes of the law as victims, the tragedy has had an enormous impact on their lives.