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SPEECH - Andrew Little confirms Pike River Mine Drift re-entry plan to proceed

Next Monday is the 8th anniversary of the dreadful tragedy at Pike River Coal Mine. Two men escaped with their lives. 29 others never came home.

Today I am announcing my decision on whether - or not - a plan to re-enter the Pike River mine drift will proceed.

This government – and the three parties that make it up – committed to fulfilling the original promise made to the families of the 29 miners and workers: to do everything practicably possible to re-enter the drift to recover any remains, and to better understand the cause or causes of the original explosion on 19 November 2010.

We established Te Kāhui Whakamana Rua Tekau mā Iwa — Pike River Recovery Agency within 100 days of becoming the government, to manage this project.

The Agency’s first task has been to present me with advice on whether it is possible to re-enter the drift safely.

The modus operandi of the Agency has included two features that had not been part of the decision-making on Pike River before:

  • the close involvement of the Pike River families and their representatives in every major decision of the Agency, and the families’ participation in development of the plans; AND

  • genuine transparency with the people of New Zealand and the global mining fraternity, with continual proactive releases of technical materials and papers to me as Minister on the Agency website.

The Agency has had the benefit of some outstanding talent, including its head, former [Major] General Dave Gawn, and Chief Operating Officer Dinghy Pattinson who brings 40 years of underground mining experience.

As well as its own experienced knowledgeable personnel, the Agency has drawn on the technical expertise of leading mining, geo-technical and ventilation experts from New Zealand and around the world.

Since the middle of this year, New Zealand Police has been actively involved in planning for re-entry so they can prepare for any role they might play in forensic examination and victim identification.

Re-entry to the Pike River drift is an extraordinarily complex undertaking. This is a site which, even 8 years after being the scene of multiple explosions and taking the lives of 29 men, poses major hazards. This has required incredibly robust planning.

Three feasible options emerged and were subject to rigorous testing and peer view.

The options were:

  • single entry using the existing drift design;
  • drilling a second tunnel at the end of the drift, closer to the mine workings;
  • drilling a large borehole part way down the drift for both ventilation and emergency egress.

The Agency has recommended the single entry approach and has advised me that it is safe and appropriate.

In considering the Agency’s advice, I have had the benefit of my own independent advice from Rob Fyfe, who has been a corporate leader in a safety sensitive industry, and who brings his own engineering experience to bear.

I have carefully considered the Agency’s advice. I have equally carefully considered Rob Fyfe’s independent advice.

On the basis of all the material I have been presented with, I am satisfied that there is now a safe plan for re-entry and recovery.

Therefore, today I am announcing that I have approved the single entry plan.

Re-entry of the Pike River mine drift will proceed.

To the Pike River Families – and to New Zealand - we are returning.

All options presented to me required additional funding. This week, Cabinet approved an additional $14 million of funding for the single entry option to bring the total cost of the project to $36 million. I thank my Cabinet colleagues, and the Labour, NZ First and Green parties for their support.

In the last few months some preparatory work has already been carried out. This includes design and manufacture of new emergency portal doors, the restoration of a high-voltage power supply, and the acquisition of a nitrogen plant.

As a result of my decision, the nitrogen plant, which has been transported to the site and commissioned, will now be brought into service.

Over the next several weeks, additional small boreholes to assist pumping and ventilation will be drilled. Other preparatory work will be completed.

The first major task to gain re-entry – the breaching of the 30m seal – is likely to commence in February next year.

There is always uncertainty in projects like this, and health and safety is utterly paramount. I quote from the Agency’s report to me:

“…a culture of safety first, deliberate and meticulous planning, well developed [standard operating procedures], training and rehearsals, and ‘conditions based operations’ is fundamental to the successful prosecution of these recovery operations. There is a lot that we do not know and will not know until we are confronted with the situation as we find it underground. This will require agile thinking, the courage of all to save NO if we are uncomfortable, the preparedness to reassess, reset and re-plan when necessary; and knowing when to call it ‘quits’.”

You can also now see the detailed re-entry plan at www.pikeriverrecovery.govt.nz.

Thank you.

Click here to read the associated press release.