Image: Pike River CoalThe worst thing about a mining disaster such as the one that played out at the Pike River coalmine in New Zealand this past week is the loss of lives. It is certain that twenty-nine men have died in the underground mine after two massive gas explosions in the space of five days, and 29 families are deeply wounded by the fact of their deaths and the thought of torments they may have suffered.

What is almost as bad, however, is the way these tragedies draw out, leaving families and the wider community in a state of agonising uncertainty. After a couple of days the world’s attention shifts to the next tragedy, but the Pike River families do not know when or whether the bodies of their husbands, sons, fathers and friends will be recovered from the mine. It may be days, weeks or never. How they must long to see those snatched from them without warning, to know the worst, to accept it and lay them to rest.

But gas fires are burning in the mine and if flames spread to the coal seam, emergency services could face a month-long battle with fire before a recovery mission could take place. A large jet engine which stabilises gases has been flown in from Australia, and, God willing, it will put the fire out sooner. The implications for the bodies of the miners is too awful to contemplate. It is the worst mining disaster in this country for nearly a century.

New Zealand is a small country but it has abundant reserves of coal which, on the relatively isolated West Coast, represent a major if controversial source of wealth. In a population of around 33,000 for the whole Coast, and 10,000 for the town of Greymouth (the nearest to Pike), the loss of 29 men is a tragedy not only for their families but for the whole community. For Pike River Coal Limited, which has spent nearly 10 years launching the new mine, the events of the past week may be a financial disaster as well.

There has been little mention of that, however, in the past week. The focus has been on rescue. Despite a strong probability that the miners had perished in the initial blast and its aftermath, company CEO Peter Whittall encouraged families in daily briefings to cling to hope, and their frustration built as, day by day, the rescue operation was delayed because of dangerous levels of gases in the mine. This was no San Jose copper mine with Los 33 languishing in a remote but ventilated cavern; this was a coal mine which leaks highly flammable methane gas at the best of times.

The desire to rescue was naturally strong. In a community where men risk their lives every day by working underground, it was not surprising to hear a colleague, a brother (that’s how miners like to think of themselves, as a brotherhood) say they would have been down that mine in no time if the police, who were in charge of the operation, had not prohibited them. People talked about the narrow window of opportunity straight after a blast when the air is relatively cleaner and it might have been possible to go in. After all, two men who were not so far into the mine at the time of the explosion managed to struggle out, one almost carrying the other. But experts say there was never a safe time and that any rescue attempt would simply have forfeited the lives of more men.

But what about heroism? What about laying down your life for the others? Even in an era of sophisticated gas sampling technology, don’t we still do that? People have compared the situation to 9/11 and the hundreds of New York firefighters and police who died in the Twin Towers, although in that case they did not know that the burning towers were about to collapse. Others ask bitterly whether firemen will stop rescuing babies from burning houses and soldiers their comrades under fire, and why surf lifesavers can attempt what the Pike River rescue team cannot. But none of these situations is strictly comparable, and the second blast on Wednesday seems to confirm that prudence was the better part of valour in the preceding days. For those with responsibility, there is also the heroism of not making heroes of others on purely emotional grounds, powerful as those emotions may be.

Paparoa Ranges. Image: Pike River CoalSome argue that the mining industry is one big gamble with people’s lives, a gamble which workers accept because they lack alternative ways of making a living, but in which companies set the terms to maximise their profit.

Profits there certainly are, or were, to be made from the hard coking coal (50 million tons of it) Pike River had only recently begun extracting from the Paparoa Ranges. The company expected to earn about NZ$4 billion from exporting most of it — mainly to Asia (one of the shareholders is an Indian company). Of course an industry has to be profitable, but it does appear that the Pike River mine, although new, lacked some safety features found in Australian and US mines. This will be a matter for the commission of inquiry the government is setting up to look into.

But there is another way of looking at this disaster and whether it could have been prevented. The rich coal seams that Pike River broke through to two years ago are located in a traditional mining region which has become part of a national park. (In fact, there are about 80 mines of various sorts in the conservation estate.) It has therefore been hugely controversial (much less so on the Coast) and only won government backing by undertaking stringent conservation measures. In the first place this meant tunneling uphill for 2.3 kilometres to reach a seam which is only 150 metres below the surface.

The safest and most economical way to mine this valuable coal would, obviously, have been an open-cast mine, but that was not to be contemplated in an era when conservation values are in the ascendancy and in a country which pitches itself to tourists as “100 per cent pure”.

Add to that the whole carbon footprint issue which makes not only the mining of coal but its use in heavy industry a “burden on the planet” and therefore anathema to environmentalists — even though it remains an essential and economically valuable source of energy — and you have an apparently intractable conflict of values and interests.

Miners themselves are rather proud of their industry and its tradition of hard, manly and, yes, dangerous work. Conservationists are their natural enemies. On the West Coast, some continue to work in other mines while Pike River workers, when they are asked, say they would return to work there. Pike River Coal is the fifth largest employer on the region and would be very difficult to replace. It does not seem right to cut off one honest means of earning a living as long as there is no alternative.

One day, no doubt, coal will be replaced and, given the inherent risks in mining it, the sooner the better. If we can develop energy sources that do not entail ripping up the face of the earth or sending men into dangerous tunnels below it, we should energetically pursue those alternatives.

Meanwhile, coal mining should be made safer, even if it means compromising both commercial and environmental values to some degree. Human dignity demands that the lives of workers and the welfare of their families should be put before all other considerations, whether landscapes and wildlife, or market opportunities and company profits. New Zealand owes it to the 29 who died at the Pike River mine, and their families, to get these values in the right order.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet