Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pike River mine CEO charged with 11 alleged offences...


JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/The Press, Christchurch
CHARGED: Peter Whittall, Pike River's chief executive at the time of the explosions.


Pike River mine disaster

LATEST: Lawyers for former Pike River boss Peter Whittall have confirmed he is among those being charged by the Department of Labour in the wake of the tragic explosion at the West Coast mine a year ago.

Whittall was Pike River Coal chief executive, which is now in receivership, at the time of the explosion, which killed 29 men.

The Pike River receivers confirmed that a number of charges have been laid against the company by the department. The 25 charges, against Whittall, Pike River Coal and VLI Drilling, were served yesterday.

The receivers today asked the District Court to lift the existing suppression orders which had been previously sought by the department.

"The matter is now sub judice and the receivers will not be making any further comment at this time."

Whittall's lawyers said he had never sought suppression and denied the all charges against him. They alleged he failed to comply with the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.

"Rather he has been actively seeking to have that order obtained by the Department of Labour lifted as soon as possible so that he could be identified publicly," they said.

"Mr Whittall is a coal miner. He comes from a coal mining town and has worked in underground mines all his life. He maintains that he would never do anything to put men who worked with him at risk. And Mr Whittall will fight being scape goated now."

The charges alleged Whittall failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of workers at the mine, the lawyers said.

Charges related to operations at the mine at a time when Whittall was based in Wellington and handling corporate - not operational - matters, the lawyers said.

An Australian, Whittall had remained on in large part to assist with the department investigation, when he could have taken voluntary redundancy, or left the company and New Zealand.

"He is deeply saddened by the Department of Labour's actions and intends to vigorously defend all charges laid against him," the lawyers said of the man who was the public face of the tragedy, and whose actions in the weeks after the explosion elicited public sympathy.

"Mr Whittall took on this role because he believed it was the right thing to do, and he continued to front for Pike even though it greatly raised his profile at a time when criminal investigations were under way," the lawyers said.

He had been "fully co-operative" throughout the year-long investigation, and would like to comment further "but in the circumstances has been advised not to make any public statements, given that the matter comes within the jurisdiction of the district court".

The department confirmed all suppression orders had been lifted, following a teleconference between all parties late this afternoon convened by the Greymouth District Court.

It said Pike River Coal had been charged with four offences of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure employee safety; five of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its contractors, subcontractors and their employees; and one of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of its employees harmed another person.

It said these charges related to, among other things, methane explosion and ventilation management, to lower the risk and impact of an explosion.

VLI Drilling Pty (Valley Longwall) has been charged with one offence of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure employee safety; one of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of contractors, subcontractors and their employees; and one of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of its employees harmed another person.

Those failures related to the maintenance and operation of machinery.

Whittall was charged with four offences of acquiescing or participating in the failures of Pike River Coal Limited as an employer; four of acquiescing or participating in the failures of Pike River Coal as a principal; and four offences of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of his as an employee harmed another person.

The department's investigation took 357 days to complete and was the most complex in its history, the department said.

At its peak, a team of 15 was directly involved in the investigation and more than 200 interviews were conducted.

Acknowledgements: - The Press
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