14 Jul 2011

Single access to mine 'madness' due to gas risk

8:43 pm on 14 July 2011

A former chief inspector of coal mines has told the Royal Commission into the Pike River tragedy he was shocked to find the mine would have only one access.

Harry Bell was giving evidence to the Royal Commission into explosions at the Pike River Coal mine which killed 29 men in November last year. Pike River Coal Ltd went into receivership in December.

Mr Bell told the inquiry he was working as a part-time tunnel supervisor during the mine development when he learned in April 2008 that there would be only one entry.

He told the commissioners on Thursday he reacted to that news by telling the contractors and Pike River Coal the plan was "madness" because of the gas risks.

Mr Bell said ventilation of the mine was sluggish and inadequate to deal with the amount of methane, and at one point called for it to be closed while this was improved. He said the ventilation problems and uphill design of the tunnel made the removal of gas even more difficult.

Mr Bell said he was asked to draw up plans to improve the system, but never heard back from the mining company.

He told hearing the mine plans would have never been approved under the old mines inspectorate regime, which required inspectors to be given a six-monthly development report.

Mr Bell says that is now done by Crown Minerals - without support from people on the ground with the appropriate experience and qualifications to understand mine plans. This, he believes, is a recipe for disaster.

Testing of miners

Earlier, another former chief mines inspector, Robin Hughes, gave evidence.

Mr Hughes told the inquiry that under the former system that was gradually abolished from the 1980s to 1990s, a board of examiners would subject a miner to a three or four-hour oral test.

Often people failed on the first or even subsequent tests before they were passed, he says.

"What it did was put the candidate under duress, or under some pressure or stress, and would in some degree replicate what he's going to be subjected to in his professional working life."

Mr Hughes told the commission the replacement unit standard system of recent years allows candidates for miner qualifications to refer to books.

He said he had misgivings about the safe mine practices of contractors - based on specific incidents - but would not comment further as one incident is still being investigated.