Remains of New Zealand coal miners discovered deep underground, 11 years after 29 died in disaster

Eleven years ago, 29 coal miners were killed in one of New Zealand’s worst industrial disasters — and one of countless accidents that underscore the human cost of coal power, which countries at a United Nations climate conference Saturday agreed to “phase-down.”

For years after the accident, the Pike River mine remained shut amid safety concerns. The families lobbied for justice, but there were never any charges. The police kept an open investigation on the cause of the methane blast.

But on Wednesday, two days before the 11th anniversary of the tragedy, police announced that they had located the remains of two to three bodies in one of the mine’s farthest reaches.

Human remains have been found in a New Zealand coal mine, police said on Nov. 17, more than a decade after one of the country’s worst industrial disasters. (Reuters)

However, investigators said it was not safe to try to retrieve the remains because methane levels in that section were too high.

“It’s a really stark reminder of the pain, of the loss,” Police Detective Superintendent Peter Read said, according to the Guardian, “but they add to a picture of investigation and hopefully they’ll go toward getting some answers to the families.”

Investigators have been able to access the mining site on the west coast of the South Island since 2019. New Zealand’s government spent more than $35 million to explore the access tunnel in an effort to locate any remains; the government cut funding this year but said it would continue to support the police inquiry, the Guardian reported.

The latest findings were enabled by new imaging technologies that allowed investigators to send cameras deeper into the mine.

“It’s what you might expect after 11 years, but I’m not really going into any details of what the images show,” Read said, the Associated Press reported.

Read said they were working with forensics experts to determine whether it is possible to identify the remains.

Two Australians, two Britons and one South African were killed in the mine explosion, as were 24 New Zealanders. The escape of two miners was possible.

A 2012 report by a New Zealand Royal Commission found that the Pike River Coal company had ignored 21 warnings that methane gas levels were dangerously high in the mine seven weeks before the explosion and kept workers in unsafe conditions to meet financial targets.

The company has since gone bankrupt.

Coal is considered the planet’s most polluting fossil fuel. However, its production and use has been an important driver for many countries’ economies.

Climate activists had hoped that this month’s COP26 U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, would push countries to phase out coal use. After a last-minute change demanded by China and India, the final language of the summit agreement called on countries to phase down coal use and “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support toward a just transition.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the agreement Sunday as “the death knell for coal power.”

But Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pushed back Monday, saying Australia’s coal industry will be operating for “decades to come.

Ahead of COP26, New Zealand said it would cut its net greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 as part of a global push to limit the world’s warming to 1.5 Celsius above preindustrial levels.

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