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Australian drilling company fined for Pike River safety failings

26 October 2012

VLI Drilling, a Sydney-based subsidiary of Valley Longwall International, admitted in July three health and safety failures over the November 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at the New Zealand underground coalmine. The company was fined $46,800 on October 25 for all three charges, infuriating members of the victims' families, who remonstrated loudly in court. 

29 miners were killed in the November 2010 PikeRiver mine explosion in New Zealand
29 miners were killed in the November 2010 PikeRiver mine explosion in New Zealand

A maximum fine of $250,000 was possible for each charge, brought under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

Representatives of the company had to be escorted out of the courtroom while family members were taken outside by security guards after the sentencing.

Judge Jane Farish set the starting point for VLI Drilling's fine at $90,000 but gave credit for pleading guilty, paying reparations to families and changing its work practices.

The charges focused on the company's failure to take all practicable steps to protect the safety of its employees and other workers at the mine because it did not ensure its drilling rig was safe to use.

The court heard that as part of its contract, Pike River Coal was supposed to do safety checks on the drill rig but had failed to do so and VLI Drilling had failed to ensure those checks were done.

Three of the dead men worked for VLI Drilling - driller Josh Ufer, 25, Ben Rockhouse, 21, who was the driller's offsider, and Joseph Dunbar, who turned 17 the day before the first explosion and was the youngest to die in the blast.

The judge refused VLI Drilling's plea for a discharge without conviction, saying its culpability was moderate rather than low.

It had claimed that would damage its international reputation and could have ''significant fiscal ramifications'', which was disproportionate to its offending, she said.

She said it was not enough for VLI Drilling to have faith in Pike River Coal when it had no mechanisms to monitor that required checks were done.

''VLI took very few steps to ensure there was a safe working environment.''

She stressed there was no causal link between the company's offending and the harm suffered by its employees as a result of the explosion.

She accepted the company had not departed from industry standards in how it ran the rig but said it was a large international company that had no enforceability to ensure it met its fundamental requirement to protect the safety of employees.

Since the explosion, it had introduced a pre-running check-list to ensure required monitoring of the drill rig was done before the machine could be operated.

Judge Farish said today a formal proof hearing would be held next March into Pike River Coal's prosecution.

Meanwhile, former Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittall appeared in Greymouth District Court on October 24, where he entered a not guilty plea to 12 charges linked to failures of methane explosion management, strata management, ventilation management and mitigating the risk and impact of an explosion.

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