Methane warnings ignored before NZ mine disaster

Associated Press Modified: November 5, 2012 at 12:15 am •  Published: November 5, 2012

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A New Zealand coal mining company ignored 21 warnings that methane gas had accumulated to explosive levels before an underground explosion killed 29 workers two years ago, an investigation concluded.

The official report released Monday after 11 weeks of hearings on the disaster found broad safety problems in New Zealand workplaces and said the Pike River Coal company was exposing miners to unacceptable risks as it strove to meet financial targets.

"The company completely and utterly failed to protect its workers," New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Monday.

The country's labor minister, Kate Wilkinson, resigned from her labor portfolio after the report's release, saying she felt it was the honorable thing to do after the tragedy occurred on her watch. She plans to retain her remaining government responsibilities.

The Royal Commission report said New Zealand has a poor workplace safety record and its regulators failed to provide adequate oversight before the explosion.

At the time of the disaster, New Zealand had just two mine inspectors who were unable to keep up with their workload, the report said. Pike River was able to obtain a permit with no scrutiny of its initial health and safety plans and little ongoing scrutiny.

Key said he agrees with the report's conclusion that there needs to be a philosophical shift in New Zealand from believing that companies are acting in the best interests of workers to a more proscriptive set of regulations that forces companies to do the right thing.

The commission's report recommended a new agency be formed to focus solely on workplace health and safety problems. It also recommended a raft of measures to strengthen mine oversight.

Key said his government would consider the recommendations and hoped to implement most of them. He would not commit on forming a new agency. Workplace safety issues are currently one of the responsibilities of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.