Former Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall today pleaded not guilty to failing to ensure the safety of workers.
He faces 12 charges in relation to the November 2010 disaster, in which 29 miners were killed following a series of explosions.
Whittall appeared at Greymouth District Court this morning, which ONE News reporter Lisa Davies described as having a "very tense" atmosphere.
She said the appearance has been "a long time coming", after the case was delayed four times.
Today the families of the deceased miners came out in force to see Whittall in court, where he pleaded not guilty to all the charges through counsel Stuart Grieve.
"Your Honour, on behalf of the defendant, I can indicate that we take the charges as read, and on his behalf I enter pleas of not guilty to all charges," Grieve said.
The former Pike River Coal chief executive is charged with 12 counts of alleged failures under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, including failure to manage methane levels and ventilation in the mine.
As his plea was entered, families sitting at the back of the court-room could be heard quietly saying "no surprise".
Whittall was remanded to a status hearing on March 14 next year. His attendance has been excused from that hearing.
He was one of three parties charged by the Department of Labour over the explosions.
The charges were laid one year after the fatal explosion. At the time, Whittall - who was appointed to CEO just seven weeks before the disaster took place - said he was being "scapegoated".
"Peter Whittall is just another person to me now, I hold him in
no regards as far as the families are concerned because of what
he's done to us, so he can say what he likes," spokesman for the
mining families, Bernie Monk, said after the court
Whittall refused to comment to ONE News when leaving court today, but issued a statement through his lawyers later, saying he was sorry the tragedy ever occurred.
"As I have said often in the past, I am deeply sorry for the losses that the Pike River families have suffered," the statement said.
"On the matter of the Department of Labour charges, I am looking to move forward with these as they are taking a huge toll on everyone involved, including me and my family."
The statement added that Whittall's not guilty pleas reflect that he does not accept the validity of the allegations made against him by the Department of Labour and his intention to challenge them in court "with all the means at Mr Whittall's disposal".
Whittall's lawyer indicated that a hearing to defend the charges could run for over a month, depending on the number of experts called by the prosecution.
If found guilty, he faces a maximum fine of $250,000 on each charge.
Valley Longwall International Drilling Pty (VLID) will be sentenced tomorrow on three charges, including failing to take steps to ensure the safety of workers and failure to ensure that no action or inaction of its employees harmed another person.