Pike River mine re-entry decision a victory for justice


Yesterday, nearly 8 years to the day since Pike River coal mine exploded, the decision was announced to re-enter the mine. The decision, which whilst a long time coming and delayed numerous times is a step in the right direction for the families of the dead and for New Zealand.

Pike River exploded on 19 November 2010 trapping 29 miners in the mine. Five days later anyone who had survived the first explosion in the mine would have been killed by a second significantly more powerful explosion. Since the explosion the decision whether or not to enter the mine has been fraught with difficulty and controversy.

The previous National-led Government believed it was too dangerous to try to re-enter the mine and opted for it to be sealed off with the deceased permanently entombed in it. They pointed to the high risk of another explosion if attempts were made to establish another entry point, or go down the existing drift.

Suggestions were made that a robot should be sent down the drift to see how far it is actually possible to go before determining whether or not humans can be sent down. Numerous robots were sent down and they had mixed results. Two army robots stopped working 800 metres into the tunnel and 1050 metres respectively. A video of a third robot going down was withheld by the police, and shows that the robot starts to overheat, but does not explode or catch fire because the atmosphere is inert – to have a flame there needs to be oxygen, and the fact that it fails to suggests it was 100% methane. The third robot got 1570 metres down the tunnel before stopping because its way was blocked by a loader that one of the miners had been operating when it exploded.

Despite the video, the then National led Government continued to insist that it was too dangerous, that the methane meant the risk of explosion is too high. This suggests to me either a deliberate ignorance of how explosions work.

For the families this wait would have been long, painful and mentally exhausting. For years now whilst politicians have fiddled over the Pike River mine they have had to go through life in some ways in a state of pause whilst they wait and hope for their men folk for whom this should have been just another day working in the mine. Instead it turned into New Zealand’s worst mining disaster since the Brunner Mine disaster where 65 miners were killed in March 1896, which was caused by a similar mechanism to that in the Pike River disaster.

So, I welcome the decision to go back into the mine and see if the recovery of the bodies is possible. I hope this makes people realize that unless experts say it is impracticable or physically impossible, that such events as this are explored as far as physically possible before anyone deceased as a result is written off as permanently missing.

What did we learn from W.W.1 100 years on?


When Europe spiralled into war in 1914, there was an almost euphoric, gleeful, delightful jolly mood throughout Europe. What a jolly thing they all said. It will be all over Christmas and we’ll be having pudding on the table, with presents under the tree and a roast for dinner.

So off they all rushed to war, this jolly good European jaunt. The Commonwealth nations excited to be supporting Mother Britain all began to mobilize. The Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans all put out calls for troops.

Within weeks the first casualty counts were coming in. The Germans had somehow stalled on the banks of the Marne River. No worries everyone thought. Things will get going again soon. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The nights began to become longer and the days colder. The trenches that were supposed to be temporary were starting to take on a degree of permanence.

No peace would descend on Earth in 1914. Instead the first of many bloody battles up and down the Western Front over which a few square miles of land would be fought with fanatical savagery had begun. Battles costing thousands of lives a piece had happened at St. Quentin, the Marne, Albert, Yser, Ypres (No. 1 of 5) and a host of other places. The ground that would become a muddy hellhole over the next four years was starting to be ground up.

The mincing machines of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele were still over a year away. But as the mass of pill boxes, bunkers, tunnels and barbed wire accrued on both sides of no mans land the men who sat in water logged dug outs eating, washing, and otherwise trying to live in close quarters to many other men, the task of finding ways to break the stalemate and win the war became a priority.

The plane as a weapon of war was still in its infancy. The tank was still years away. But other sinister developments were taking shape. Desperate to gain the military initiative, the Germans, French and British had begun experimenting with chemicals as weapons. The initial attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1915 the Germans introduced chlorine.

Tactics were changing too. The creeping barrage that moved in front of advancing soldiers had been introduced. A moving wall of exploding shells would proceed the soldiers across no mans land, chewing up and spitting out already mangled land and bodies. Another one, the bite and hold strategy of biting a small chunk out of the enemy lines, consolidating and moving on was another.

By the time the Somme and Verdun, two blood baths with a combined total of nearly 2 million Allied and German dead between them, were over, the French were ready to mutiny. The Russians, sick to death of their wealth hoarding Tsar and no longer able to stomach any further fighting against the Germans were ready to revolt. Food shortages in Germany and Britain were dire and no one knew how or when this giant mangling machine would end.

Conditions were no better in the Commonwealth countries. New Zealand and Australia were permanently scarred by their experiences in Gallipoli in Turkey where they had been trying to take the Dardenelles and secure a supply line to Russia. Canada, South Africa and India were also bleeding steadily. All had further bloody confrontations awaiting them at Passchendaele (Ypres III), and elsewhere.

And so, Passchendaele got underway with the misgivings of just about everyone involved. Only the Generals seemed to be keen for it to happen. The 100 days of mud and blood that followed earnt it a special place in the collection of hell’s that World War 1 was.

Whilst that was happening the Russians had the second of two revolts that toppled the Tsar. Communism became a new term in the language of politics and within months, Russia and the Germans had cut a deal that enabled the Germans to flood the western front with fresh forces.

The German offensive of 1918 temporarily terrified the Allies, moved rapidly west for a month and then, unable to sustain their supply lines, failed. Another 688,000 Germans and 863,000 British, Commonwealth, French and American lives later and it was over for Germany. Before they could recover, the Allies 100 days offensive that would end with the Kaiser abdicating and Germany calling for an armistice began. It took back everything the Germans had taken and was closing on the German border when the Kaiser abdicated.

So what did we learn from World War 1? Apparently not a lot, other than that type of war is criminal. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was apparently cowardice, for which one could be shot. Soldiers went home and suffered permanent mental break downs as a result of what they had seen and done with no redress of any sort. And in that 4 1/4 years, enough progress was made on the technological front to unleash horrors unheard of in 1913. Historians to this day argue over the true meaning of the battles that took place, though all are in agreement that it was a truly appalling time in human history.

It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. The Germans would be vanquished, and unable to conduct offensive wars ever again. It would be punished and made to pay huge reparations. Yet on 01 September 1939 World War 2: The Really Really Dreadful Sequel started.

The pill boxes and the grave yards that litter fields in Belgium and France are silent testament to four years of abject madness where political pride and military prestige were more important than the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. If nothing else, on this 100th Armistice Day Anniversary, we would do really well to remember that. They did not die for nothing.

Getting ready for the Alpine Fault


It is New Zealand’s biggest seismic hazard, short of a Hikurangi Trench subduction zone rupture. The Alpine Fault earthquake that is expected to occur in the next 50-100 years has been well publicized. But how much are communities close to the fault doing to prepare for a magnitude 8.0+ earthquake?

The Alpine Fault, New Zealand’s answer to the well known San Andreas Fault in California, is the tectonic plate boundary between the Pacific Plate and the Australian Plate where they intersect in the South Island. Every 300 years or so this fault line ruptures in a magnitude 8 earthquake. A sequence of 24 events over the last 8,000 years points to earthquakes in 1100AD, 1450AD, 1620AD and finally around 1717AD,

No part of the South Island will be spared prolonged shaking. Many people, especially i in the lower North Island, will also notice the earthquake. Shaking intensities along the rupturing segment of fault are likely to be up to MMX, which is strong enough to heavily  damage all structures, with many failing and large objects such as televisions and microwaves being moved about. Liquefaction, lateral spreading, landslides and seiching of lake bodies will occur as well.

Alpine Fault Magnitude 8 is a collaborative and ongoing project to improve the readiness of councils across the South Island in terms of their ability to respond to such an event. It has buy in from emergency services, Civil Defence, social groups, the N.Z.D.F., agencies working with lifeline infrastructure and others. The aim is to improve modelling of the potential hazard, engage emergency management and planning experts and use the knowledge gleaned to fill gaps about how to respond.

I anticipate that much of the work that has been done will have been brought into sharp focus by the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016. This was the largest onshore earthquake to hit New Zealand since Murchison in 1929. It caused widespread damage across the northern South Island and lower North Island. The quake exposed weaknesses in transport arrangements with both the railway line and State Highway 1 closed – traffic had to be rerouted through the Lewis Pass in order to reach Picton.

Despite the Kaikoura earthquake and lingering shadow of the Christchurch earthquake, not all councils appear keen to progress their disaster planning. Westland District Council found itself in hot water in 2016 for rejecting Plan Change 7, which sought to address the planning issues that Franz Josef township finds itself confronting. The township straddles the Alpine Fault, which is clearly visible from the air as a crude gash in the landscape. Critics pointed out that the council has a duty of care to all in the District and that by failing to address the risks posed, it leaves itself open to court action by anyone in the District at the time of such an earthquake.

Yet the risk remains. Other councils are pressing ahead with their own plans individually, to be fed into the overall A.F.8. planning framework. It is a proactive council that stands the best chance of success, for no one knows when 300 years of seismic stress on the Alpine Fault will give up the ghost. The only certainty is that with the same confidence that darkness will come into a room when the light goes out, one can conclude it is inevitable.

E.Q.C. report nothing new


Another E.Q.C. report – the same old story: disgruntled claimants, botched repairs and no one being made to take responsibility.

After 7 years of dealing with the consequences of the 04 September 2010 and 22 February 2011 earthquakes the latest E.Q.C. report was not surprising in the least, except perhaps with regards to how scathing it was.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Megan Woods has been in the job for 8 months now. Annette King who was appointed Chairwoman of E.Q.C.’s Board has been instructed by Ms Woods to accept the findings and begin implementing the recommendations immediately.

All well and good so far. But having spent most of a decade waiting for satisfactory resolution to their claims and fair, full and final payouts to match, many will be short on patience. Some of the claimants are in their 80’s and should not need to be still dealing with problems that might have started when they were still in their 70’s. These are the people who should be happily living out their final days enjoying their time with their relatives and friends, doing things they like and not having to worry about what the Earthquake Commission is or is not doing about their property.

The Earthquake Commission for its part needs to play along with Mrs King’s implementation of the findings. No time to delay, no games to play – anyone who begs to differ should be shown the door forthwith..

The report, whilst welcome has some serious issues to overcome, namely:

  • What will be the period in which claims can be settled – open ended settling periods are not acceptable and have been the cause of considerable and well documented angst among claimants
  • Will Cabinet approve the reimbursing of insurance companies if they agree to immediately settle on all over-the-cap claims? Ms Woods says that she will, but given the financial pressure it is likely to add, it remains to be seen if Cabinet will come on board
  • The standard of repairs needs addressing – the repairs should not have been signed off in the manner that they were until someone with neutral oversight could check the standard
  • Hire the necessary staff to do the job and stop pretending everything is under control when it is clearly obvious that it is not
  • Tell E.Q.C. that non-compliance is not an option

It is with guarded optimism that I wait to see what will happen. Having been in Christchurch for all of the magnitude 6.0+ events – 04 September 2011 (7.1); 22 February 2011 (6.3); 13 June 2011 (6.4) and 23 December 2011 (6.0) – as well as nearly all of the aftershocks between magnitude 5.0-5.9 and felt the stress, I can totally understand the frustration and anger. It is long since time to get this mess fixed.

One year after the fires, what has New Zealand learnt?


The first I became aware of the fires on the Port Hills that started one year ago was a fellow staff member coming into the staff room and saying there is a big plume of smoke coming from the Port Hills and that it must be a scrub fire. Thinking it would probably be all over in a matter of hours I went out for a quick look and decided to have a closer look at coverage of it in the media later on. A year later, what have we learnt about fighting such fires?

For awhile an amalgamation of the New Zealand Fire Service and other emergency services has been on the cards. Whilst the individual organizations still exist as such, the umbrella organisation overlooking them has changed to Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

To the average person from one day to the next, that means little. One still obviously dials 111 for emergencies. The Police, Fire and St John still have their distinctive roles to play. What has changed is how events requiring an inter agency response are managed. Too late for the 11 houses that were destroyed in the fires last year, but hopefully not too late to prevent a repeat of such an event somewhere else in New Zealand.

When the fires started, the first on the scene were the Fire Service. But, although it was normally the first to respond to rural fires, the Fire Service jurisdiction lay within urban areas. In a rural fire event, the Fire Service would hand over to the Rural Fire Service when their personnel arrived. With 38 fire districts shared between the F.S. and the N.R.F.S., little wonder perhaps that confusion reigned. With these particular fires traversing the boundaries of Selwyn District, Christchurch City and Department of Conservation land, exactly who was in charge (or not in charge)of what, was a mystery.

People affected have complained of a lack of information being fed to them by Civil Defence or the Fire Service. A lack of intelligence meant when the forecast easterly change on Day 3 happened, the Selwyn District Civil Defence did not get it. Information about fire behaviour and progress all seemed to be missing. The Fire Service acknowledges this.

Whilst progress has been made addressing the command structure of the Fire Service, can the same be said for the replanting of the Port Hills areas burnt by the fire with less fire prone vegetation types. Carrying out this replanting using such vegetation types will help to reduce the risk to properties in the future.

It also raises questions about peoples preparedness for scrub fires that firefighters lose control of. Many people who were forced to move, were made to do so at short notice, meaning valuables, documents such as passports, driver licenses and so forth, ended up being left behind.

Finally one point of interest remains. If one looks at the Crimes Act provisions for arson, a person may be liable for up to 14 years imprisonment if they are found to have caused intentional damage by fire to property knowing a risk to life is likely to ensue; 7 years if found to have caused intentional damage by fire to property that they have no interest in. The Act says nothing about providing for someone found guilty of multiple instances in either case.

With warm weather forecast today, one hopes that fire wise it ends up being a damn sight less eventful than 13 February 2017 and the days following were.