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Pike River could reopen before royal commission reports

Monday 29th November 2010

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The royal commission of inquiry into the Pike River coal mine disaster faces inevitable delays while Labour Department, police and other official inquiries take place, Prime Minister John Key warned today.

Announcing the appointment of Christchurch High Court Judge Graham Panckhurst to chair the royal commission, Key also confirmed that issues relating to the mine’s design and construction would be covered in the inquiry, even though there is no specific reference to those issues in the draft terms of reference also released today.

The draft terms broadly cover:
• the causes of the two explosions on November 19 and November 24, after which it was reasoned that there could be no survivors among the 29 mine lost in the mine;
• the cause of loss of life;
• the way the search, rescue and recovery operations were handled and what resources were available for them;
• the systems in place in the mine;
• the relevant legislative frameworks for mining and mining safety, and how they compare with relevant international jurisdictions and best practice.

The Department of Labour is also to appoint an international underground coal mining expert for an urgent audit of the five or six such mines operating elsewhere in New Zealand.

The commission has no set timetable and an initial allocation of $1.5 million. Judge Panckhurst will be joined by two other expert commissioners, following its establishment today by the Governor-General by Order in Council – in practice, the only difference between a royal and a normal commission of inquiry.

Key noted that both the Louise Nicholas police sex abuse commission of inquiry and that held into the cause of the 1979 Mt Erebus Air New Zealand plane crash were both delayed while other inquiries were completed.

Asked whether the mine could potentially reopen before the commission had reported, Key said he did not know "whether Pike River intends to stay closed till the end of the inquiry."

The company's commercial future hangs in the balance as various inquiries proceed, and efforts continue to douse the coal fire that has begun burning inside the mine.

Key said the mine was a "highly computerised environment" and that "a lot of data" had been collected to assist the investigations, which include an investigation by the company itself.

Pike River chairman John Dow said in a statement to the NZX this morning that the company would assist all inquiries as much as possible.

"We are as determined as everyone else involved to find the reason or reasons for what has happened."

If Pike's internal inquiry turned up information of significance to any other inquiries, "we would of course make that known to police investigators," said Dow.

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