Warning about coal mine where 29 died was ignored

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A former chief inspector of New Zealand's coal mines said yesterday that he repeatedly warned of ventilation problems at the Pike River mine and called for it to be shut down before an explosion last year killed 29 people.

Harry Bell told an official inquiry into the 29 November disaster that he had warned mine managers that their plans to have a single entrance to the mine were "madness" because it would not allow for the proper ventilation of volatile gasses such as methane.

Mr Bell said he was so concerned about the situation he called a government mining inspector.

"I said, 'Stop them... until they fix the ventilation,'" Mr Bell told the hearing. But while some changes were made, he said, the operation continued.

His testimony on the fourth day of hearings was the toughest so far against the Pike River operation.

The commission has previously heard testimony from others concerned about safety in the mine and the financial pressures facing the mining company.

Mr Bell, whose nephew was killed in the explosion, was called as an expert witness and was not working in any official capacity in late 2008, when he said he raised red flags. However, he had previously worked at the mine as a tunnel supervisor for about eight months, in 2007.

Mr Bell said that after he had finished working for the company, a worker at the mine got in touch with him and expressed concerns about a series of 10 small gas explosions triggered by tunnelling machinery.

Mr Bell said it was clear that the ventilation system was inadequate and he urged managers to fix it by adding a ventilation shaft before they continued extending the mine.