Jacinda Ardern reaffirms pledge to Pike River families as officials reach re-entry milestone 10 years on

The Prime Minister has reaffirmed the Government's pledge to Pike River families as officials close in on an area which is critical for forensic examination of the mine. 

Marking a decade since the 2010 coal mining accident on the West Coast which claimed the lives of 29 men, Jacinda Ardern delivered a speech in Parliament to the victims' families reiterating her commitment to bringing them justice. 

"You have never given up your quest for justice, and in part that is down to who you are as people. Tough, kind, stubborn - and honest," Ardern said to members of the Stand With Pike Families reference group, which includes widows and parents of the victims. 

"I want to acknowledge your men - sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, uncles. I want to acknowledge who they were, and the lives they lived. We are here because of your determined efforts to ensure that everything that could be done in honour of your men would be done."

Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens campaigned on re-entering the mine during the 2017 election after the former National-led Government decided against it and police announced that the mine had been sealed as it was too dangerous to continue efforts to retrieve the bodies.

But by March 2019, Pike River Recovery Minister Andrew Little confirmed plans to re-enter the 2.3km mine draft. Re-entry was delayed due to "unexpected and unexplained" atmospheric readings, but officials finally entered the mine in May 2019. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivering a speech in Parliament to the Pike River victims' families.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivering a speech in Parliament to the Pike River victims' families. Photo credit: Newshub

The Pike River Recovery Agency worked for months to purge methane and oxygen from the mine by pumping in nitrogen through pipes before they proceeded underground. By June 2019, they had found nothing of interest. 

In September 2019, a Newshub investigation discovered that police destroyed 52 exhibits that were found around the mine after it exploded. Police decided the items had "no evidential value" and could not have been used in court, leaving victims' families shocked.  

In December 2019, officials had broken through the 170-metre mark of the sealed-off mine and proceeded 20 metres along the unexplored drift to search for forensic evidence. 

The mission was put on hold in August this year after the discovery of a carcinogenic residue found on the walls, the roof and mining equipment. Workers were allowed back by the end of August following a risk assessment.  

Four months on and Little has now confirmed that the Pike River Recovery Agency is just 104 metres from the roof fall at the end of the drift access tunnel.

Pike River Recovery Minister Andrew Little.
Pike River Recovery Minister Andrew Little. Photo credit: File

"Through the unswerving commitment of the Stand with Pike Group and supporters, a small agency team and contracted experts, the Government's commitment to a safe re-entry and recovery has been able to be carried out," Little said. 

"New Zealand police have been on-site directing the forensic work underground and working closely with the agency and families to progress their ongoing investigation into the tragedy.

"These activities have been carried out with safety as the paramount principle, partnership with the families every step of the way, and operating with transparency."

The task is taking longer than anticipated. In March this year, Little said the Pike River Recovery Agency expected it would most likely be possible to complete recovery work underground by July or August - but work is ongoing. 

Cabinet approved a further $10.8 million in March to complete the project as well as a $4.2 million contingency, bringing the total budget up to $51 million. 

National leader Judith Collins was critical of the operation after Little admitted in June that it was "just impractical" to expect the remains of all of the fallen miners to be recovered. 

"Labour, the Greens, and NZ First politicised the tragedy that unfolded at Pike River, building false hope among the families," Collins said at the time. "Unsurprisingly, they have now admitted they aren't going to be able to deliver on their promise."

Pike River Mine explosion.
Pike River Mine explosion. Photo credit: Getty

Collins was Police Minister at the time of the tragedy in 2010. She said the previous Government was advised against re-entry, and she pointed blame at former Pike River Coal Ltd boss Peter Whittall. 

A 2012 Royal Commission Report on the tragedy said the company's directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety "and exposed the company's workers to unacceptable risk" in their drive to produce coal. 

Whittall escaped charges under the Health and Safety Act when the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) allowed him to instead pay $3.41 million to the two survivors and families of men who died. 

"It found that the mining should have stopped," Ardern emphasised in her anniversary speech, referencing the Royal Commission's findings. 

"Ten years later we are very close to fulfilling the commitment to you," she told the families. 

"But our obligation to you as families does not just exist at Pike River. It exists in every workplace across the country. I know that is one of the reasons we were asked to be here, in Wellington today: To remind us that the memory of your men, and your decade of efforts, must be carried in all we do to prevent further tragedy."