New Zealand mining inquiry after blasts kill 29 miners

A miner lays flowers at the Pike River mine, where 29 miners died (29 November 2010)
Image caption Fires in the Pike River mine could delay the recovery of bodies for months, officials said

The New Zealand cabinet has agreed to open a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River mining disaster in which 29 miners died.

Prime Minister John Key said the future of the coal mining industry must await the results of the inquiry.

A fourth underground explosion at the mine occurred on Sunday, and a coal fire is now burning.

The bodies of all 29 men in the mine at the time of the first explosion on 19 November remain underground.

The inquiry into the tragedy at the West Coast mine near Greymouth has a broad remit and is expected to take about a year.

Its terms of reference include investigating the causes of the explosions in the mine and the loss of life along with the generals laws, systems, practices and procedures that govern health and safety in underground coal mining.

Mining companies, families, unions, international experts, government agencies and rescue services are expected to be consulted.

Managing risk

The inquiry will be chaired by Justice Graham Panckhurst and supported by two other commissioners with expertise in mining and safety regulation.

"We can't put people into environments that are dangerous," Mr Key said.

"We can put people into an environment where there is an element of risk because at the end of the day, lots of jobs in New Zealand have an element of risk. You know, if you're a builder or an electrician you have an element of risk in your job.

"But there is a difference between a risk that is managed and mitigated and a dangerous environment. Now if this is a dangerous environment, then we need to understand that."

Mr Key said Royal Commissions were reserved for matters of very significant public interest and the Pike River Coal mine tragedy was one of those.

Meanwhile, mine officials have said that the fires burning at the mine could delay retrieval of the dead miners' bodies for months.

The fourth and strongest explosion occurred inside the mine on Sunday, just as engineers were to begin trying to flush out toxic gases from the mine.

"Recovery of the 29 men lost in the Pike River mine remains the company's top priority," the Pike River Coal company chairman John Dow said in a statement.

However, engineers said one of the options to put out the fires was to seal the mine as coal fires could burn for years.

Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall told local media that retrieval of the bodies could take weeks.

New Zealand's coal mining industry employs about 450 people but is a key source of wealth in small communities given the strength of Chinese and Indian demand.

The country has had 210 deaths in 114 years in mines.

New Zealand's worst mine disaster was in 1896, when 65 died in a gas explosion at a mine on the same coal seam as the latest tragedy.

The most recent had been in 1967, when an explosion killed 19 miners near the Pike River site.

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