THE New Zealand Government has approved, and will fund, a NZ$7.2 million plan to re-enter and explore the main tunnel of the former Pike River coal mine.
Formerly operated by Pike River Coal, the mine was sealed in early 2011 following a series of explosions in November 2010 that resulted in the death of 29 workers. When Solid Energy purchased Pike River Coal’s assets (which were in receivership) in July 2012, it agreed to a condition requiring it to commit to undertaking recovery of the remains of the 29 men, provided it could be done safely, in a manner that was technically and financially feasible.
Re-entry to the mine would give experts access to electrical equipment and possibly detect causes of the explosions. NZ Mine, Energy and Resources minister Simon Bridges approved the staged re-entry plan following a risk assessment by Solid Energy.
“Safety is paramount, and the High Hazards Unit of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has reviewed the plan and is comfortable with it,” Mr Bridges said.
“This is a highly complex and technical operation and it will be carefully managed in stages, with a risk assessment undertaken at each stage. Ensuring the safety of workers is an absolute bottom line for the government and Solid Energy.”
Mr Bridges said the scope of the operation did not include entry into the main mine workings which was blocked by the rock fall. He said he was not in a position to comment or speculate on re-entering the main mine tunnel, however he told media that the chances of finding human remains in the entry tunnel were “slim”.
“We do know there’s been fires, there’s been floods, there’s been explosions, so it has been and probably still is a very unstable environment,” he said.
“That makes me personally sceptical about going further than the rockfall.”
Exploration of the main tunnel was part of a larger operation by Solid Energy to reopen the mine for commercial purposes.
The first stage of the project would focus on sealing the mine’s ventilation shaft, which would be necessary to stabilise the atmosphere in the tunnel.
Progressive approvals by the Solid Energy board and ongoing monitoring would be required for all stages of the project.
“We have to be satisfied that the mine atmosphere can be effectively managed before we let anyone back into the tunnel,” Solid Energy chairman Mark Ford said. “The Solid Energy board will need to be confident that all stages of the plan can be done safely and we won’t know that until the ventilation shaft has been plugged.
“This is a complex initiative which will require constant and formal monitoring and review.
“As we will be working with uncertain outcomes at every step of the way, any major variations from the original plans will have to be re-assessed as to their
relative safety, and any major variations will also need to come back to the Solid Energy board for further evaluations of the risks and their acceptability.”