Lax safety standards led to New Zealand coal mine disaster - report

Mon Nov 5, 2012 6:04am GMT

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand's worst mining disaster in nearly a century that killed 29 people in 2010 happened because the operator neglected safety and put workers at risk, a commission said on Monday. The labour minister resigned in response to the findings.

In a scathing report on the blast at the Pike River Coal Mine, a Royal Commission said the government should not have let the mine operate until the risks had been assessed.

"In the drive towards coal production the directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety and exposed the company's workers to unacceptable risks," the commission said.

The commission said the mine on the rugged west coast of New Zealand's South Island ignored numerous warnings of dangerously high methane levels. Its ventilation and drainage systems were not up to the job.

The explosion was triggered by methane, which is found naturally in coal. Methane becomes explosive when it makes up 5 percent to 15 percent of the volume of air.

"Its health and safety systems were inadequate. The mine was riddled with deficiencies," Prime Minister John Key told reporters. "It's possible that it could have been preventable."

Kay said the government "takes its share of the responsibility" and that's why Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson had resigned.

In announcing her resignation, Wilkinson said the disaster, the worst in New Zealand since 1914, had happened "on her watch".

The commission said the mine had been struggling financially and was borrowing to keep operations afloat after it had overestimated coal output. It had cut corners on safety.   Continued...

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