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Australian drilling company pleads guilty over NZ mine blast

31 July 2012

Smoke from a ventilation shaft after the Pike River incident
Smoke from a ventilation shaft after the Pike River incident

An Australian drilling company has pleaded guilty to several charges in connection with the 2010 New Zealand Pike River mine explosion, which killed 29 men. The New Zealand Labour Department charged three parties including the Pike River Coal company; its chief executive; and the Hunter Valley drilling contractor Valley Longwall International, known as VLI Drilling.

The men died after a series of methane-fuelled explosions. The Labour Department said in a statement of facts about the case that it was not known if VLI's drill rig was running at the time of the first explosion. However, the department said VLI's methane detector on the rig was faulty and needed replacing, and had not been inspected as required.

VLI Drilling today pleaded guilty to three health and safety charges relating to the maintenance and operation of its drill rig used in the New Zealand mine.

The company has been convicted of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of employees, contractors and subcontractors.

In a statement, the company says the charges do not relate to the disaster itself and instead relate to its failure to have a procedure in place to verify that Pike River Coal had conducted its inspections of its drill rig.

VLI Drilling says in hindsight it regrets its reliance on Pike River Coal's processes alone.

Receivers PwC  for Pike River Coal say they will not enter pleas for the 10 health and safety charges the company faces.

"Following the completion of the sale of the mine and related assets to Solid Energy, [the company] is in effect a bare shell," PwC's John Fisk said. The company still owed a lot of money to both its secured and unsecured creditors and PwC did not think it was in their interests in spending money on the case.

Charges against the mine's former chief executive, Australian Peter Whittall, will be heard in three months. His lawyers say  Whittall will rigorously defend himself against the 12 charges he faces.

VLI Drilling will be sentenced in October. 

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