By Tom Peters, Socialist Equality Group
Documentary Recovery 29, directed by Sofia Wenborn, aired on Prime Television in New Zealand on October 26 and added to streaming site Sky Go.
The state-funded film is a whitewash of the Labor-led government decision to continue to cover up the Pike River mining disaster, in which 29 workers were killed in a series of underground explosions in November 2010.
The film provides a cursory account of the work of the Pike River Recovery Agency (PRRA) over the past three years. The PRRA was created by Jacinda Ardern’s government following the 2017 elections. Labor and their coalition partners, the Greens and New Zealand first, had campaigned by promising to return to the mine. Pike River Coal to fully investigate the disaster.
To date, no body has been found and no one has been held responsible. For more than a decade, government regulators and the judiciary have protected company executives from lawsuits. Police insisted they couldn’t lay charges without knowing precisely what triggered the first explosion, which involved stepping into the mine.
A 2012 Royal Commission of Inquiry found that the Pike River Coal company had violated numerous health and safety laws and regulations and put production ahead of worker safety. The mine had very inadequate ventilation and gas monitoring systems, and no proper emergency exits. The company made the reckless decision to install its main ventilation unit underground – the fan is believed to set off the explosion.
Wenborn’s 2016 documentary Pike River addressed some of the conditions in the mine leading up to the explosion. The new film focuses on how the PRRA made the mine gallery tunnel safe, venting methane and using nitrogen to neutralize the atmosphere, before entering to retrieve debris and material for a forensic examination.
Many families of the victims had hoped that the Ardern government would find out the whole truth about the disaster. Recovery 29 narrator Bryan Crump says the PRRA was put in place to “right the wrong” and “recover the 29”.
The film does not highlight the glaring conflict of interest in the fact that the minister responsible for the Pike River re-entry, Andrew Little, was the head of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) at the time of the explosion. The EPMU had approximately 70 members in Pike River.
The union was aware of the dangerous conditions in the mine, but did not make it public and did nothing to protect the workers. Instead, the union worked with the company to keep the mine in operation. When it exploded, Little defended the company’s safety record, saying there was “nothing unusual” about the mine.
The Labor government shut down the clandestine investigation before it had a chance to uncover human remains and the most important evidence. Minister Little announced in March that the government would not fund the PRRA to go past a roof drop at the end of the 2.3 km gallery, or entrance tunnel, in the construction site where the underground fan and other crucial evidence.
Over the past month, the PRRA installed a 30-meter-thick permanent concrete joint at the entrance to the mine, a decision opposed by 22 of the 29 families of the victims.
Recovery 29 aims to justify the government’s decision. Crump says, “Pushing is not an option… going past the roof drop would require a whole new plan.
Some PRRA miners express their frustration to learn that the job will be abandoned. Shane McGeady, who had friends among the Pike River 29, says not getting past the roof drop “frustrates you for shit knowing you’re so close.” Another worker comments that “it’s like doing a job half-finished”.
Rowdy Durbridge, whose son Dan Herk died in the mine, and who is in the minority of family members supporting the government, says the return “has not achieved what I really wanted, and it was to get [the bodies] outside. ”However, he echoed Minister Little’s position that too much money has already been spent on back-to-school and that it would be too expensive to go to mine sites.
Durbridge is a member of the Family Reference Group, which is part of the PRRA and does not represent the majority of families.
PRRA chief operating officer Dinghy Pattinson admits the move will be seen “as a missed opportunity.” But he defends the government, saying he never promised to go beyond the drift, and that “there is no more money” to go further.
The film does not question these statements. There is no mention of the detailed proposal of the Independent Technical Advisory Group (ITAG), led by former Chief Inspector of Mines Tony Forster. Experts have backed the majority of the Pike River families for a full underground investigation. They estimated that it would cost less than $ 8 million to proceed with the fall of the roof – which was actually two large piles of coal – and recover the underground fan area. It could be done safely using standard mining techniques.
Recovery 29 devotes just over five minutes to protests and lawsuits supported by 22 families in Pike River, in an effort to prevent the government from sealing the mine. Bernie Monk, whose son Michael died in the mine, points out that Minister Little broke his promise to families that the government would properly assess whether it should explore beyond the mine sites once the gallery is recovered.
Monk says in the movie: “I’m sorry for
[the PRRA workers]. They have to walk down the street, see us and think, ‘I locked Michael Monk in the mine.’ “
Monk told the WSWS that the film was “very light” and “weak”. Much of what he brought up in his interview has been deleted; including questions as to whether the miners survived the first explosion on November 19, only to die in a second explosion five days later. He noted that the police were not investigating the cause of the second explosion (see also: “What is the New Zealand government trying to bury in the Pike River mine?”).
Monk pointed out that the film makes no mention of the widespread support for families on the West Coast and more broadly. An online petition titled “Help Keep Critical Evidence from Pike River Mine Locked Up Forever!” »Received more than 6,600 signatures. The World Socialist Web Site published dozens of letters of support from workers in New Zealand and abroad, including miners in the UK and Australia, who condemned the official cover-up and the campaign to seal the mine .
The film ends with the final title: “The families settled their legal dispute with the government outside the courts”, without giving further explanation. Carol Rose, whose son Stuart died in the mine, told the WSWS it made the families look like they had been paid. In fact, the lawsuit was withdrawn in exchange for Minister Little’s admission that the Families Reference Group did not represent the majority of families and that the government had not properly consulted with families on its ” decision not to explore the feasibility of returning to the mine workings.
Pattinson says in Recovery 29 that he hopes there will be prosecution as a result of the evidence gathered in the drift tunnel, “because you can’t have 29 people dying in a workplace and no one be held responsible “. Police are currently drilling boreholes and lowering cameras in parts of the mine sites; it is not clear whether useful evidence can be gathered in this way without a manned re-entry.
The film presents the police investigation without criticism. There is no mention of revelations in 2019 that crucial evidence was missing, including a door to a control panel on the underground fan, which was blown out of a ventilation shaft and found little. long after the mine exploded. If tested, it could have revealed if the fan was an ignition source.
Overall, Recovery 29 is thinly disguised propaganda, “a big pat on the back for the government,” as Carol Rose told the WSWS. He seeks to create the false impression that everything has been done to uncover the truth about the disaster, to shore up the severely damaged credibility of the Ardern government, and to justify what is, in fact, an ongoing cover-up.
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