NZ Mine Boss Faces Charges Over Deadly Explosion

Peter Whittall faces 12 criminal charges for failing to ensure his employees came to no harm after 29 died in a 2010 explosion.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- He was the grim, sometimes tearful boss who became the face of a New Zealand coal mine for the world's media and to miners' families after a 2010 explosion killed 29 workers.

Now Peter Whittall faces 12 criminal charges.

The former chief executive of Pike River Coal, Whittall has been charged with knowing about or participating in the failures of the company he ran, and for failing to ensure his employees came to no harm, the New Zealand Labour Department announced Friday.

The charges come amid allegations during an ongoing government probe into the disaster that the mine didn't have adequate escape routes or ventilation to rid it of explosive gases, and that the company was cutting corners under the strain of its stretched finances.

Whittall's lawyers said Friday that their client denies all the charges and intends to fight them.

The Pike River mine on the rugged West Coast of New Zealand became a tomb after a methane-fueledexplosion ripped through it on Nov. 19, 2010. A second major explosion five days later dashed hopes that any workers had survived. The men's bodies remain in the mine amid fears it's still too dangerous to enter.

Whittall had been the company's chief executive for just seven weeks at the time of the disaster, but he'd managed the mine for the company for five years prior to that.

The Labour Department said in a release that the failures Whittall oversaw "relate to methane explosionmanagement, strata management, ventilation management and mitigating the risk and impact of anexplosion."

Whittall's lawyers said their client was "deeply saddened" that the department had brought charges.

"Mr. Whittall is a coal miner," his lawyers wrote in a release. "He comes from a coal mining town and has worked in underground mines all his life. He maintains that he would never do anything to put men who worked with him at risk. And Mr. Whittall will fight being scapegoated now."

The department also brought 10 charges against the now-bankrupt Pike River Coal company and threecharges against the VLI Drilling company. Each of the 25 charges in the case carries a maximum penalty of 250,000 New Zealand dollars ($195,000).

When the department first announced Thursday it had filed charges, it declined to immediately detail them or name the defendants because of strict court rules on name-suppression in pending cases. It said Friday that all suppression orders had been lifted after a teleconference between all the parties at the Greymouth District Court.

Whittall's lawyers said their client had never sought name suppression and had actively sought to have the order lifted so he could be named publicly.

There could be further charges laid in the case as New Zealand police continue to conduct a separate investigation.

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