Safety the key to Pike River recovery

International Mines Rescue Body Conference 2021 key speaker Dinghy Pattinson shares the complex challenges of one of the biggest mines recovery events in recent years.  

The Pike River Coal Mine explosion in New Zealand during November 2010 claimed the lives of 29 men.

Prior to the 2017 New Zealand general election, the families of the lost miners and the nation’s public were promised that a Labour-elected government would support and fund a re-entry if it was deemed technically viable and safe to do so.  

After the election, in January 2018, the Labour Party established the Pike River Recovery Agency Te Kāhui Whakamana Rua Tekau mā Iwa as a stand-alone government department. 

Dinghy Pattinson was appointed as chief operating officer of the agency in early 2018, where he has overseen the planning and operational elements of the Pike River re-entry work and has responsibility for ensuring activities at the mine comply with statutory health and safety requirements. 

Pattinson says the mission of the agency was to conduct a safe, manned re-entry of the mine drift. 

“The founding principles we set ourselves were that we had to have a close partnership with the families and bring them along on the journey with us,” Pattinson says. 

“Health and safety was the first priority and we wanted to be transparent and open.” 

Due to the death of the workers the New Zealand Police wanted to conduct a forensic examination of the tunnel. 

To achieve that, Pattinson says the police deemed the mine site to be a crime scene and they were carrying out an investigation. 

“Early on in the planning (police) decided they were not going to go underground and they would train us up – all of our workers and all of our staff – in how to do forensic examinations,” he says. 

“Everybody agreed it was easier to train us up in forensics than to train the New Zealand Police to become miners. 

“So we took photographs, we bagged and tagged any evidence, just like any normal crime scene.” 

Pattinson says he wanted the right culture within the agency as the mine was out of compliance. The operation was also expected to come under high scrutiny from the media, New Zealand regulators and environmental agencies as the whole mine is situated on a national park. 

“We also knew we would come under real scrutiny from the families because there was a real trust issue here with all the previous companies who failed to re-enter the mine. The weather was also going to be a big battle for us,” he says. 

“The mine had been sealed for 10 years so no one knew what condition the mine was in.” 

Pike River mine is 46 kilometres north-northeast of Greymouth in the West Coast region of New Zealand’s South Island. 

Pattinson says the mountainous area posed a number of challenges for the recovery crew. 

“At this stage there was only one way in and one way out, so there was only one entry for us,” he says. 

“We knew there were going to be carcinogenic products in there as well and one of our main risks was all the helicopter work that had to be involved. 

“That was because we had to put bore holes up on the mountain, we had to establish gas monitoring lines up on the mountain and we had maintained all of those all the time as we went into the mine.” 

Water Corporation robot recovered 953 metres up the Pike River mine drift. Image: Pike River Recovery Agency

However, Pattinson says opportunities came with those challenges. 

“For everybody there it was more than just a job – it was personal,” he says. “As the standalone agency set up to do the recovery, we weren’t a mining company so we weren’t there to make money. 

“We weren’t time bound – our saying was ‘it doesn’t matter how long it takes, we have to do it safely’.” 

“We formed a partnership with the families and we had a lot of input from the world’s leading experts.” 

Pattinson says there was significant infrastructure for the team to deal with in performing the recovery operation. 

“There was a conveyor structure all the way up the tunnel,” he says. “There was also all the electrical transformers that were situated on the pit bottom on the stone. 

“We knew there would be a challenge with re-ventilating to ensure we had no methane left in the mine – when we took the mine over it was 98 per cent methane.” 

Pattinson says the recovery involved more than 30 technical experts from around the world from Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, as well as locally at Greymouth. 

The agency risk assessed three options to look at re-entry of the site. 

“One was single entry and just go in through the single portal using the current tunnel,” Pattinson says. 

“The other one was building another tunnel so we have a second means of egress – we looked at an area further up the mountain. 

“We also looked at still using a single entry but putting a large diameter bore hole at the end of the tunnel as an escape if anything went wrong. But again, to use that you would have to recover the whole tunnel first. 

“The recommended option we took to the New Zealand Government was single entry and while we deemed all three options could be done safely, single entry was the less complex.” 

In March this year, the Minister responsible for Pike River Re-entry, Andrew Little, stated that it was too hard and too expensive to go any further into the mine. 

Pattinson says the recovery team is now in the progress of sealing the site. 

“Once we have finished that the site will be rehabilitated and handed back to the New Zealand Department of Conservation as it is a national park,” Pattinson says. 

“The whole idea was to gather evidence to better understand what happened with the explosion to try and prevent future tragedies, but mainly to promote accountability 

“Here we are nearly 11 years on and no one has been held accountable for 29 lives lost. It was also about giving the families of the Pike River families and victims some closure, peace of mind and to recover human remains where possible. 

“To all those people out there who said we could not do this safely – we have proven them wrong.” 

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