Families of the miners killed in the Pike River mining disaster say they disagree with the representative group who last week accepted the government’s decision to stop funding efforts to recover bodies or evidence from the explosion.
Twenty-nine men were killed when an explosion ripped through the Pike River mine on the west coast in November 2010. Their bodies remain in the mine.
Last week, the New Zealand government announced it was ceasing funding for a project to explore the mine’s access tunnel, or “drift”. That exploration has cost NZ$50m so far, and the minister in charge, Andrew Little, said the mine was “inherently unstable” and that the mission could not have an unlimited budget.
At the time, the Pike River Family Reference Group, which says it represents the families of 27 of those who died, said: “[The] families accept, with heartbreak, Andrew Little’s advice that there will be no more government money to expand the project at this time.”
But on Thursday, a group of families came forward saying they were “blindsided” by the initial statement and want the government to reconsider its decision. They said the initial move to accept the end to drift exploration was made by a small number of families who were present at the meeting, and many others opposed the decision. Bernie Monk, whose son died in the accident, said 22 families had contacted him to give their support.
Monk told NZME that the government agreed to “return the men home to their families” and had failed to do so. “New Zealanders don’t break promises and I don’t want to get into a personal battle with Minister Little but he’s broken a promise, like all the promises that have been broken before us.”
Little said that the government had not committed to going further into the drift – and that doing so had health and safety risks, and would cost millions. “The cost to go further, which is what some families want, because of the health and safety issues would be millions and millions of dollars more and I just don’t have that money and cabinet is not going to approve that money,” he told The AM Show on Thursday.
Some of the families hope further exploration could end with recovery of some of the men’s bodies. Others are hoping that reaching and extracting the mine’s ventilation fan will provide clues about what caused the explosion, and possible evidence for future prosecutions.
Pike River was one of New Zealand’s worst mining disasters, and the worst in the last 100 years. A royal commission in 2012 found safety warnings were ignored at the site, and that government regulators had failed to inspect it effectively. No individual has ever been successfully prosecuted over the disaster.