The rise and fall of Peter Whittall

This week's Pike River hearings have focused on former CEO Peter Whittall. Once showered with public acclaim, Whittall is now in a very deep hole indeed, dug in part by his own denial

So the first stage of the Pike River Royal Commission has wrapped up in Greymouth today, and what a difference a few months has made for Pike River Coal CEO Peter Whittal.

Remember those days and weeks after the explosions, when Whittall's sincere grief and dogged commitment to a rescue had the nation praising him as a hero? Votes flooded into the New Zealand Herald as they sought their readers' nominations for New Zealander of the Year. "Courage and leadership" were the words used. Although his number one reputation didn't last, as recently as last month, Readers' Digest staff nominated Whittall as one of the the country's 100 most trusted and readers voted him at 68th.

But the hints of his demise could be seen even back in those Herald articles, when the paper refused to include him in their list, "because of ongoing concerns about the future of the Pike River mine and the findings of the Royal Commission".

Journalists paying attention to what happened at Pike River have long suspected that public opinion will eventually turn against Whittall. And this week, as he spoke to the commission, the former CEO and mine manager, looked resigned.

While he defended his record, the public heard of advice that the gas removal was inadequate, production targets had been missed and cashflow has become "an issue", there was no easy escape route and no trial evacuations had been held.

What's staggering, is that after this week's testimony he could step outside the court and say that Pike River Coal's reputation had not been tarnished:

"I think it shows that the company has taken every conceivable step and employed every available consultant to provide the best possible advice."

It seems an incredulous claim given the commission's hearings thus far, but then Whittall's line this week was consistent with what he said when first asked about mine safety (on Q+A) just three days after the second explosion, when the miners were finally presumed dead. He said then that there was "continuous monitoring" at Pike River, this week explaining that monitors on fixed and mobile plant fed data to the control room in real time.

But as mining expert Dave Feickert said at the time, "There’s continuous monitoring and there’s continuous monitoring". What as missing was a tube bundling system, which is regarded as standard and best practice elsewhere.

On Q+A last November and in Greymouth this week Whittall said all the rest was coming... later... when the mine was bigger... when the scale of production and profits warranted it. Tragically, tube bundling was budgeted for the 2010/11 year.

Too late. As Feickert said, "Well, I would have thought in that mine you would start off with a tube-bundle system".

Whittall said in November that the mine was safe, and gas and ventilation issues were never ignored but "worked on, constantly". Which doesn't seem terribly convincing, as I would have thought you'd want a mine where ventilation just secure and didn't have to be worked on at all.

The terrible impression left last year and reinforced this week is one of a mine under financial pressure that was cutting corners. As families' spokesman Bernie Monk has said today, the mine was obviously unsafe.

Thing is, miners know how to mine safely. The technology and industry tecnniques are well-known. There's no reason for people to die underground these days. The only reason that people die is when things are not done properly.

As this sinks into the public consciousness, Whittall's once heroic reputation - not to mention his liberty - is at risk. The only thing that might save him is that New Zealand regulations have been so weak, that all these inadequacies didn't amount to a breach of safety laws. Or so it seems.

With the commission on break now, surely the government must accept that mine safety in this country has fallen below acceptable levels and it's time for laws to be changed and fast.