The first underground coal mine to operate in Cape Breton in a generation has been plagued by safety violations that one industry observer says has left some miners feeling afraid.

Documents obtained by CBC News under freedom of information laws show a history of repeated infractions at the Donkin coal mine, some of which could endanger the lives of workers.

"I'm worried about the safety of the miners in Cape Breton," said Gary Taje, the international staff representative of the United Mine Workers of America, which does not represent the Donkin workers. 

"It makes me scared, and I do know there are some scared miners there."

29 warnings for violations

Inspectors with the province's Labour Department carried out six inspections between the first day of production at Donkin on Feb. 27 and June 15.

During the mine's first 3½ months of operation, the department issued 10 compliance orders and 29 warnings for violations of workplace safety and underground mining regulations.

And just three weeks after miners started digging for coal, the province ordered the entire operation closed because of ventilation problems.

Power failure

On March 22, a storm knocked out power to a wide area in eastern Cape Breton, including Donkin.

The electricity failure caused the main fan at the mine to stop working, and the mine's standby power supply, required under the province's mining regulations, was not available because it had not been commissioned by Nova Scotia Power yet.

ice on Cape Breton trees

An ice storm in March knocked out power to the Donkin mine. The province issued a stop-work order five hours into the outage. (submitted by Nova Scotia Power)

Without proper ventilation, methane can build up to dangerous levels and cause an explosion.

According to Nova Scotia Power, the outage began just before 10 a.m. and power was restored to the mine at about 10 p.m. The province caught wind of the power outage at about 3 p.m. and issued a stop-work order.

Stop-work orders are issued only in cases of imminent danger to workers.

Stop-work order

Taje said the fact that the province had to order the work stoppage is significant, as it means the company may have had workers inside an unventilated mine.

"That would have put everybody in that mine's life in jeopardy," he said.

"You have to be brain-dead to work in a mine that has no ventilation. That is an absolute no-no."

Kameron Collieries coal truck

A truck carrying coal from Donkin to Sydney leaves the Donkin Mine earlier this year. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith/CBC)

The company's vice-president of project development and external affairs, Shannon Campbell, said the mine's protocol is to bring all underground workers to the surface within 15 minutes of an interruption in ventilation and that's exactly what happened.

Scott Nauss, the senior director of inspection and compliance with Nova Scotia's occupational health and safety division, told CBC News the company assured the province that workers were pulled from the mine immediately after the power went out, but said the government has no way to independently verify that.

The stop-work order was lifted the next day at 7 a.m.

Emergency protocol violated

Nauss said only one injury has been reported at the mine. The side of a wall collapsed and injured a contractor, who was able to return to work the next day. 

Many of the violations relate to regulations designed to help miners during an emergency such as a fire or explosion.

An inspection of the mine on March 7 found that a stash of self-rescuers — a type of mask that allows miners to breathe safe air during an emergency — had been stored inside a manhole that was obstructed by a pipe. There was no sign indicating the equipment was there.

Some other required pieces of mine rescue equipment were either missing from the mine rescue station or not functioning.

Donkin inspection reports

Documents released under freedom of information detail the Donkin mine's violations of workplace safety and underground mining regulations. (Frances Willick/CBC)

Explosion barriers too small, misplaced

When an explosion occurs in a coal mine, it's usually because either methane or coal dust came into contact with a heat source. The pressure of an explosion causes more coal dust to blow up into the air, which feeds the fire and can cause ricocheting explosions throughout a mine.

Explosion barriers, which can include bags of water or stone dust, are required in underground mines to help mitigate the spread of fire and explosions.

Inspectors at Donkin repeatedly found the water barriers did not meet code because they were not big enough to cover the space they were meant to protect, or because some of the bags of water were empty.

Stashes of emergency stone dust are required to be placed at certain intervals in the mine. Provincial inspectors found on at least two occasions that those stashes were not where they should be at Donkin.

And, if an emergency did occur, miners in one area may have found it difficult to get out, as an inspector noted on three separate visits that a sump on one of the slopes contained "enough water to make passage very difficult in the event of an emergency."

'Bump checks' not completed

Inspectors noted more than once that there was a "significant amount of damage" to one of the coal ribs, or walls, which appeared to stem from mining equipment hitting it while making turns.

The inspection report said while extra bolts had been installed to secure it, "this action may not be sufficient." Unsecured walls and ceilings can result in rockfalls.

The company was also found not to be conducting the required daily "bump checks" — tests to ensure that portable air monitors used to detect potentially lethal levels of gas are functioning properly — and was calibrating its flammable gas monitors monthly rather than weekly.

Donkin mine

The shafts of the Donkin mine extend about three kilometres under the Atlantic Ocean. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

"That's fairly significant," said Taje.

"That technology should be checked. If you're not checking it, you could be in there operating, believing everything is working, but it's not actually working."

Improper record-keeping

Several of the violations involve a lack of proper record-keeping, although the lack of records may not indicate that a corresponding action was not being taken.

A March 16 inspection found there was no record of any procedure in place to communicate information between supervisors and miners about emergencies, the presence of noxious or flammable gas or other hazardous conditions.

No one was designated to inspect the fire suppression system or maintain mine rescue equipment. And the last record of inspection of refuge stations was conducted in March 2016.

Donkin mine

A sign at the entrance of the Donkin mine. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

One inspection report noted an employee who was training other workers was not designated to be an instructor, and his or her qualifications were not verified.

In one instance, an inspector noted the company's pre-shift inspection report books referenced West Virginia's mining legislation rather than Nova Scotia's. The Donkin mine's parent company, the Cline Group, operates extensively in that state.

Inspectors also found changes had been made to the mine that were not approved by the province, including a cut into a coal block.

Unannounced visits

Taje said he believes the inspection reports likely do not represent the full scope of safety conditions at the mine.

"Any inspections, they can only see what's happening at the time, and quite often, companies know that inspection's being done and they may make things look a little better," he said.

Scott Nauss

Scott Nauss, the senior director of inspection and compliance with the province's occupational health and safety division, says management at the mine has been co-operative with inspectors. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

While the company is given advanced notice of some inspections, others are unannounced. Nauss said word of an inspector's presence likely does get underground, even for unannounced visits. 

"They're probably only getting advanced notice in the minutes. So it's very tough for non-compliance situations to be brought into compliance that quickly," he said.

Mine management responds

The company said safety is the No. 1 priority at the mine.    

"Every rule has a meaning," said Campbell. "They were written for a purpose.… Probably somebody got hurt to create that regulation. So I treat them all with due care and respect and we try to operate so we have no [compliance] orders at the end of the day."

Campbell said the Donkin mine is the first one to operate under updated provincial regulations introduced in 2015 and he expects to see fewer infractions as the "growing pains" subside.

He added the number of compliance orders is normal for the industry, and that he views them as an opportunity for improvement.

A deadly history

Although some violations are easily remedied, Taje said the inspection records are cause for concern because they show the company is not following the letter of the law.

"The extreme example of that is the conditions at Westray prior to Westray exploding. That is something we all have to guard against," he said. 

"We have 1,000 examples behind us that we have learned from and it requires an effort to make sure that everything we learned is being applied to ensure the safety of those miners in Donkin."

On May 9, 1992, 26 miners died when the Westray mine in Plymouth, N.S., exploded.

Westray first responders

On May 9, 1992, 26 miners died when the Westray mine in Plymouth, N.S., exploded. (CBC)

The report from the public inquiry into that tragedy blamed the disaster on a wide variety of problems within the mine, management, the provincial inspection regime and political circles.

"The Westray Story is a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect," the report stated. Factors that contributed to the explosion "might at the time, and of themselves, have seemed trivial."

'Little issues' that add up

The mining world now knows too well that when it comes to mine safety, nothing is trivial, said Taje.

"You have to stay on top of all these little issues."

Nauss said for the most part, the violations at Donkin were not for issues that would cause imminent danger.

"I won't say they're trivial by any means," he said. "Underground coal mining is a very hazardous environment, and it's also heavily regulated. So it's kind of no surprise that there are violations in a heavily regulated environment."

He added the company has been co-operative with inspectors and has worked to correct deficiencies promptly.

Donkin not unionized

Like all mines owned by the Cline Group, the Donkin mine is not unionized.

Taje said he believes Donkin employees are afraid to speak out about safety issues at the mine.

"They're afraid of losing their jobs. You've got people who have just started a job. A number of them have been laid off from other places. Some of them are brand-new miners.… The miners are scared because they really do not have a solid voice."

Gary Taje

Gary Taje, the international representative of the United Mine Workers of America, said the violations are cause for concern. (United Mine Workers of America)

CBC News contacted some employees, but no one was willing to comment.

The United Mine Workers of America hopes employees will eventually decide to join the union.

Open-door policy

Taje said unionized mines are "always safer" because workers aren't afraid to voice their concerns.

"If they are, there's a union official there ... that isn't going to lose his job for speaking out. They need someone to speak out for them."

Campbell said the company has an open-door policy and that it strives for "constant, transparent, honest, respectful communication" with its employees regarding safety.

Taje fears that without a union to support workers and force the company to comply with safety regulations, there could be tragic consequences.

"If we don't learn the lessons from the past and apply them, we are going to repeat it," he said. 

"And that's happened in the mining industry way, way too often."

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