Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Stillwater Ngakawau Line [4]: Pike River Coal Siding

This site near Ikamatua is where the Pike River Coal Company built its siding as part of its underground coal mine development nearby. For the sake of completion I have also included photos or maps of their two other sites.

I don't normally comment politically on this blog but have made an exception as you can see near the bottom of this post. For now here is the photo of the siding itself and the description.

The siding was built as part of the development of the Pike River coal mine in the hills above Atarau. This mine exploded in late 2010 and killed 29 mine workers whose bodies are still in the mine as there was too great a hazard to extricate them. There were only two shipments of coal made from the mine although each would have required multiple trainloads so it isn't clear how many trains used the siding.

The siding is very unusual both for NZ and for coal loading sidings. A balloon loop is the more commonly used arrangement, however not one coal siding in NZ uses one. The Port of Lyttelton used to have a balloon loop for unloading but it was removed some years ago to make more room for coal, although it could be reinstated in the future. I think this circular siding takes up less space than a balloon loop and compared to the parallel loop at Lyttelton for the locomotives to runaround the train, the advantage of either a balloon or circular layout is not having to duplicate the track. The siding as it is has a workable track length of around 1000 metres so it could handle very long trains, although coal trains on the West Coast in NZ have been limited to around 40 hopper wagons, which wouldn't use half of this siding. Longer trains could run if they were split at Otira because of the practical limits imposed by the Otira Tunnel, so a train from Ngakawau and a train from here could have been joined together, in theory, assuming they could get to Otira.

The loading siding was one of the mine assets purchased from the receivers by Solid Energy when the mine closed down, and SE planned to keep the siding mothballed for future use if other coal mines were developed in the general area. However when SE itself went into liquidation the site was sold and dismantled.

 Coal preparation plant. Coal was slurried down from the mine in a slurry pipeline and was on reaching this location, dewatered and then stockpiled and loaded into trucks for the trip to the loading siding. The other main facilities here were the security checkpoint and the bathhouse, as the road from here was private.
 The mine office near the entrance. Some of the buildings have been kept as part of a memorial.
 The mine entrance and part of the underground drift into the mine.
 The vent stack near the mine entrance. This was where the smoke and flames were seen when the mine caught fire after it had exploded several times. The GAG from Australia was brought in to extinguish the mine which was then sealed up.
 The overall area of the mine property within the dotted line.
Overall view of the mine facilities from the mine itself in the Paparoa Ranges down to the loading siding at Ikamatua.

Now there has been a great deal of controversy over the dogged persistence of some of the miners' families to demand the mine be reopened and the bodies recovered. Whilst I agree with the view of some experts and the line currently taken by the government that the mine is too dangerous to open, the wider context has to be seen. NZ does not have a corporate manslaughter law and the government refused to introduce one. Also a number of key mine management staff were not prosecuted and as far as I can recall the health and safety case only prosecuted the Pike River company but the parent company used the receivership to conveniently limit their payout. The board of directors also escaped prosecution despite their legal liability for H&S. The government also had blood on its hands as the health and safety system in NZ was manifestly inadequate to ensure the mine was properly supervised by government agencies. 

Compare that with the UK where because of Grenfell Tower there will likely be corporate manslaughter charges against the Kensington and Chelsea Council and the tenant management organisation. In Christchurch we have our own equivalent the CTV building that collapsed killing 115 people and for which no one has yet been prosecuted. One gets the impression the government has wanted to sweep Pike River under the carpet as it was politically inconvenient for them to be blamed for the inadequate mines management regime that existed at the time although the requisite minister did resign their portfolio.

So I am fairly sympathetic to the mine families although I don't think the mine should be reopened.