Charges dropped against New Zealand death mine boss
Flames roar out of a ventilation shaft at the Pike River Coal mine near Greymouth on New Zealand's West Coast, November 30, 2010, after a gas explosion in the mine that caused the death of 29 workers
Prosecutors said the case against former Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall was withdrawn as it was unlikely to succeed, also revealing Whittall and other mine bosses had agreed to pay compensation to families.
But relatives of those killed in New Zealand's worst mine disaster in almost a century condemned the decision and slammed the NZ$3.41 million (US$2.82 million) compensation package as "blood money".
"Justice just wasn't served today for the families,'' Bernie Monk, whose son died in the disaster, told reporters outside the Christchurch District Court.
"We've always said this disaster made a laughing stock of mining -- the justice system, now, is in the same place."
Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton was killed, said the offer from Whittall and other former Pike River directors to pay NZ$110,000 (US$91,000) to each of the dead men's families and two surviving miners was "a joke".
"As far as I'm concerned, it's just blood money," she said.
Whittall was in charge at Pike River when a blast tore through the South Island colliery on November 19, 2010, resulting from a methane build-up that investigators later blamed on inadequate ventilation.
The disaster claimed the lives of 24 New Zealanders, two Australians, two Britons and a South African.
Their remains are still entombed about 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) into the colliery, with recovery teams unable to reach them due to fears that volatile gases remain in the mine shaft.
As the tragedy unfolded, Whittall became its public face, holding daily briefings for families and the media on the desperate, but ultimately futile, attempts to reach the blast site and search for any surviving miners.
He pleaded not guilty when New Zealand's Department of Labour laid 12 charges against him, including four of failing to take all practicable steps to prevent employees coming to harm.
An official report last year found that the mine should not have been operating when the blast occurred because lax safety procedures adopted in the rush to boost production meant methane levels were often dangerously high.
Judge Jane Farish, who accepted the prosecution motion to withdraw charges, said the compensation payment by the mine's former directors was an acknowledgement that the company was at fault.
"Some people may believe this is Mr Whittall buying his way out of a prosecution, but I can tell you it's not,'' she told the court on Thursday.
New Zealand Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said the decision meant the actions of Whittall and the government officials supposed to regulate mine safety would never be scrutinised in court.
"Who will ensure these men get the justice they deserve?” she said. “It is insufficient for the department to say the charges could not be successfully proven."
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