Australian drilling company admits safety violations over pit disaster that killed 29


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The Independent Online

An Australian drilling company has admitted three health and safety violations in connection with a pit disaster in New Zealand in 2010 in which 29 miners were killed.

VLI Drilling pleaded guilty in a New Zealand court today to charges that it failed to keep its workers safe at the Pike River coal mine.

The company faces a maximum fine of 750,000 New Zealand dollars (£386,000).

VLI, a contractor at the mine, employed three of the men who died.

Several criminal charges are also pending against the main mine operator, Pike River Coal Ltd, which employed the rest of the victims.

Bernie Monk, the father of a Pike River Coal employee killed in the disaster and a spokesman for all of the victims' families, said VLI has been able to walk away without facing any meaningful consequences.

"For me it's only a slap on the wrist," he said. "It's very hard to defend."

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.

Brett Lynch, the chief executive of parent company Valley Longwall International, emphasised in a statement that the charges did not relate to the explosion itself. He said he regretted VLI not having in place proper procedures to ensure inspections were carried out.

"We regard the safety and well-being of our people as an absolute priority," he said.

Mr Lynch said the company had provided "ongoing financial and practical support" to the families of its three dead employees, adding that it would be inappropriate to disclose details.

Meanwhile, Pike River Coal elected not to contest nine health and safety charges. A court is scheduled in October to determine the bankrupt company's culpability. Pike River's former chief executive Peter Whittall also faces 12 criminal charges, which he has vowed to fight.

At a government inquiry into the disaster, experts testified that the mine did not have adequate escape routes or ventilation, and that Pike River Coal was cutting corners due to financial pressure. The inquiry is scheduled to issue its findings in September.

But Mr Monk, whose 23-year-old son Michael died in the accident, said the failure to date by New Zealand authorities to hold anybody accountable in a meaningful way or to implement better safety procedures has him deeply frustrated. He said he and other victims' relatives will continue to push for both legal and mine safety reforms.

"We've had to fight every inch of the way to be heard," he said.

He added that the families would consider civil litigation once the government inquiry concluded.

Mr Lynch said he did not expect civil litigation to be brought against his company because the safety charges did not relate to the explosion.

The Labour Department said in an email that any fines collected from VLI would go to the government rather than to the victims' families.