News24

New Zealand mine boss pleads not guilty

2012-10-25 11:08

Wellington - The head of a New Zealand mine where 29 men died in a 2010 gas explosion pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges that he failed to take adequate steps to prevent the blast.

Lawyers for Peter Whittall, former chief executive of the now-defunct Pike River Coal mine, said he would fight the allegations "with all the means at [his] disposal".

"He has been a coal miner all his life. He relates to, and identifies himself with, coal miners. He would never do anything or take any decisions which would endanger those with whom he worked," they said in a statement.

Whittall was in charge at the South Island pit when a blast tore through the colliery on 19 November 2010, killing all 29 men working there in New Zealand's worst mining disaster for almost a century.

He became the public face of the Pike River tragedy holding daily briefings for families and the media on the desperate, but ultimately futile, attempts to reach the blast site and search for any surviving miners.

In the wake of the disaster, New Zealand's Department of Labour laid 12 charges against him, including four of failing to take all practicable steps to prevent employees coming to harm.

Inquiry

"These failures relate to methane explosion management, strata management, ventilation management and mitigating the risk and impact of an explosion," the department said.

It said Whittall pleaded not guilty to all charges in Greymouth District Court on Thursday and will reappear on 14 March next year.

Each of the charges carries a maximum penalty of $206 000.

A Royal Commission - the most powerful inquiry available under New Zealand law - is conducting a separate investigation into the incident. It has the power to recommend criminal charges if it believes they are warranted.

The disaster claimed the lives of 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two Britons and a South African.

Their remains are still entombed about 2.5km into the colliery, with recovery teams so far unable to reach them because of fears that volatile gases remain in the mine shaft.

Mining stopped at Pike River after the explosion and the Pike River Coal company went into receivership soon afterwards.