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$110,000 awarded to Pike River victims, families

Friday 5 Jul 2013 10:33 a.m.

Judge Jane Farish fought back tears in the Greymouth District Court this morning as she awarded compensation to the victims of the Pike River mine explosion.

Pike River Coal (PRC) was ordered to pay $760,000 in fines and more than $3 million in reparations for breaches of health and safety that contributed to the deaths of 29 men.

The families, along with two survivors, were each awarded $110,000 in compensation.

But PRC, which is now in receivership, has just $156,000 available in a post-explosion insurance fund for fines and reparations.

The decision was met with applause from the families, who have waited years for justice.

"The hazards were well known, they were predictable and they were preventable," she told the court.

"At the time of the explosion there were many indicators that the mine was an unsafe and in a potentially explosive position, yet the warning signs were not noticed and not heeded."

The charges against PRC cover four main areas of failure, after the company failed to properly measure methane levels, ensure there was proper ventilation, check panel geology and mitigate explosion risk.

Another charge was laid for failing to ensure the safety of 16-year-old Joseph Dunbar, who was the youngest of the 29.

But a question remains over whether PRC, which is currently in receivership, will be able to pay the hefty reparation.

It has not contested the charges brought against it due to a lack of funds, while representatives and former directors have not appeared in court.

Receivers PricewaterhouseCoopers filed an affidavit which outlined that only $156,000 is available in a post-explosion insurance fund.

However, Judge Farish said the reparation could be paid out by existing shareholders or directors.   

The largest shareholder, NZ Oil and Gas, is keeping the company in receivership rather than liquidation, implying there was still some financial viability at the site.

Directors also held a considerable amount of insurance, she said.

Outside of court Bernie Monk, who lost his son Michael in the disaster, implored NZ Oil and Gas to step up.

"It’s almost laughable to say how many millions of profits they made," he says. "If they walk away from this, then God help New Zealand."

Mr Monk also applauded the sentence, saying Judge Farish had put a "stake in the ground".

"I think she stood up to the plate and I was impressed," he says. "Looking back she’s done things right.

"It has been charged emotionally and I thank her for the patience she’s had with us."

He was, however, sceptical that they would see any significant compensation after the sentence.

Yesterday, the court heard the heartbreaking legacy that the tragedy has left behind, as family members talked of the ongoing grief and financial strife they have suffered since.

The court heard how the men's deaths caused depression, suicide attempts, divorce, chronic anxiety, loss of employment, and the ongoing pain of knowing that the men’s remains are still inside the mine.

In an impact statement read aloud to the court, Beth Mackie told of her continuing anguish at the loss of her son Samuel.

"An act of violence has been brought against my son and I am very angry and bitter," she said.

"That a company could play Russian roulette with his life is like something from a horror movie."

Many families expressed their anger over the way the sentencing is being held, frustrated that the company’s directors are not being held directly accountable.

Reading a statement, widow Anna Osborne told the court she wanted someone to take responsibly for "killing" her husband Milton.

"Milton was my rock, I miss him more than I can say," she told the court.

"He was the love of my life, who loved me regardless of all my ailments and inflictions."

The 44-year-old voiced her frustration at being restricted by the court process, saying it prevented her from singling out and naming the directors.

"The employers pushed the miners and contractors to their death," she said. "How can the people responsible for this just walk away?

"This was no accident, it was totally avoidable and unnecessary."

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