New Zealand company found guilty over deadly mine blast

A New Zealand mining company that owned a colliery where 29 men died in a 2010 gas explosion was found guilty Thursday of safety breaches that led to the fatal blast.

Judge Jane Farish found there was a direct link between safety breaches at Pike River Coal and the deaths at the South Island colliery on November 19, 2010 -- New Zealand's worst mine disaster in almost a century.

"In this case, there were fundamental breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act which led to the unnecessary deaths of 29 men," she said in a written judgement at the Greymouth District Court.

She found Pike River Coal guilty on all nine counts laid against the company, including failing to take all practicable steps to prevent employees coming to harm. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of NZ$250,000 ($211,000).

Farish said sentencing would take place on July 4 and 5, although it is unclear what assets the company has, as it went into receivership when the mine failed to re-open after the explosion.

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 mine shaft, with recovery teams unable to reach them because of fears that volatile gases remain in the pit.

An Australian company that provided services at the mine, VLI Drilling Pty Limited, was convicted last October of three safety breaches and fined NZ$46,800.

The mine's former chief executive Peter Whittall will go on trial facing similar charges later this year. He has pleaded not guilty.

A royal commission into the disaster found late last year that operators ignored numerous danger signs in a rush to boost production at the mine and there was no effective oversight from regulators.

The commission did not recommend pursuing criminal charges over the disaster, instead calling for a major overhaul of mine safety regulation in New Zealand.

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