Worker says he got lead poisoning at mine cleanup

John Dicks says he believes he inhaled lead dust on the job while helping to dismantle the defunct Sa Dena Hes lead-zinc mine near Watson Lake, Yukon.

John Dicks says he believes he inhaled lead dust while working at Sa Dena Hes

A worker who was allegedly lead-poisoned while dismantling a defunct mine in the Yukon is speaking out.

The Yukon Workers Compensation Health and Safety Board has been investigating the cleanup work at the Sa Dena Hes mine for months after it found that at least 10 workers had been diagnosed with lead poisoning.

The lead-zinc mine, which is located 45 km north of Watson Lake, operated for 14 months between 1991 and 1992. 

Teck Resources, based in Vancouver, owns the mine. It sold its processing plant and power house on the site to JDS Energy and Mining, based in Kelowna, B.C. That company sub-contracted eight companies to carry out clean up of the site.

John Dicks worked for subcontractor ALX Exploration Services.

The Sa Dena Hes lead-zinc mine, which is located 45 km north of Watson Lake, operated for 14 months between 1991 and 1992. Remediation of the site started last year. (submitted)

Dicks says he felt something was wrong only a short time after starting work at the Sa Dena Hes site. 

"It was just a mess... just a total mess," he said.

"My symptoms were not just nausea, but restlessness... weakness, tired. You try to sleep but you can't. And then cold sweats. It was a constant battle of trying to sleep and not sleep. It was delirium."

Dicks was tested for lead poisoning six weeks after stopping work. The tests came back clear but he maintains he was poisoned.

Dicks believes he breathed in lead dust while working on the remediation of the mine.

"It was in our clothes; it was everywhere," he said. "It was on our hands.

"I think after about the second week, they gave us a five-gallon bucket with a tap on it and some kind of solution that takes heavy metals away that you can wash your hands with. But before that? Nothing."

Dicks was working on the crusher plant, but says other workers had it worse than he did, like the ones taking down the mill.

"They were coated," he said. "They were black. But they were white men. They were completely covered in it. Just good workers, good guys, but I don't think they understood what they were getting involved in."

Clean-up workers inside a structure at the Sa Dena Hes lead-zinc mine. (submitted)

Dicks says he tried to raise the issue of lead poisoning with JDS, which had management and staff on the site. 

"We were given instructions by the foremen and stuff as to what to do, and then you know, a safety meeting," he said.

"Like try-out procedures, and the basic typical stuff that you see on a job site. There was nothing about poisonous materials, material handling, nothing like that, really."

He was hired in early May for a contract of three months but was fired along with the rest of his crew after just 21 days on the job.

He joined the local carpenters' union shortly after. A union rep says lead poisoning is unheard of these days.

"Years and years ago at Faro, this was pretty regular," he said.

"This is the kind of stuff that happened in the '50s and '60s and '70s. The reality is that this shouldn't be happening in today's day and age."

ALX would not comment, referring all questions back to JDS.

In an emailed statement, JDS refuted Dicks' allegations. It says it provided proper equipment, including coveralls and respirators, and training.

In the statement, JDS says it let go of one of its subcontractors because of "performance issues; including unsatisfactory safety performance." 

Teck Resources and JDS were supposed to get blood samples from workers at least 15 days after they started work, but that didn't happen.

The Yukon Workers Compensation Health and Safety Board asked all the companies involved to submit the names of every worker and visitor to the site. Board inspectors are still collecting blood samples. They have samples from 48 out of 184 people identified in this case.

WCHSB inspectors found several other issues with safety on the site including broken equipment, clutter and filthy respirators.

Compliance orders were issued to fix the problems. According to WCHSB, most of those have been dealt with but its investigation continues.