CBC Investigates

'That's all it takes, is one spark.' A year of safety violations at Donkin coal mine

In the Cape Breton mine's first year of operation, the province issued 35 compliance orders and 71 warnings for violations of mining and workplace safety regulations.

Concerns included rockfalls, air quality monitoring, access to rescue teams

Records of safety inspections at the Donkin mine outline many violations of the province's underground mining regulations and workplace safety rules. (Radio-Canada)

Even as its first year of operation drew to a close, the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton continued to regularly violate provincial safety standards and pose hazards to employees.

Inspection records over the course of the year reveal details of rock falls and poor air quality monitoring. One inspector found that if there was an emergency, rescue attempts could not be made until workers arrived from Pugwash, N.S. — a 4½-hour drive away.

The latest batch of inspection reports released by Nova Scotia's Labour Department under the freedom-of-information law show that from the mine's opening at the end of February 2017 until the end of February 2018, the province carried out 26 inspections, and issued 35 compliance orders and 71 warnings.

Both mine operator Kameron Coal and the province say Nova Scotia's regulations are stringent, and the company is working hard to meet them. The province's head of inspections says he believes the mine is safe.

But the litany of violations has some concerned, including Gary Taje of the United Mine Workers of America. The union does not represent Donkin workers, who are non-unionized, but it has tried to unionize the mine.

"They're doing their job," Taje said of the inspectors. "But the best inspector can't stop anything. The best inspector only gets a snapshot of the time he's there."

'A matter of life and death'

Last July, an inspector with the department found the company only had enough rescue workers to form two teams, even though three are required.

Instead, it had an agreement with K+S Windsor Salt in Pugwash to provide additional teams. But until one arrived from 380 kilometres away, no rescue could be attempted at Donkin.

Two people work in an underground mine. (CBC)

"It could be a matter of life and death," said Taje. "In the time it takes to get that backup, then people could die."

Scott Nauss, the senior director of inspection and compliance with the Labour Department, said Kameron Coal now has the required number of rescue teams in place and is working on creating another local team.

Falling rock and coal

The mine has struggled to solve ongoing problems with falling rocks and coal underground.

In one area where rocks had fallen, an inspector noted the roof had "little to no self-supporting ability."

"Weak roof conditions" were spotted in another area, where about a metre of rock had dropped from the roof into an intersection. Inspectors flagged several other spots where rock had fallen or had the potential to do so, including one 15-metre stretch of wall that had deteriorated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., small pieces of falling rock injure up to 500 coal mine workers each year in the U.S., and rock falls caused 40 per cent of fatalities at underground U.S. mines between 1999 and 2008.

Coal moves along a conveyor belt in a mine. The Donkin mine has faced problems with coal and rock falling from the roof and walls. (CBC)

Kameron Coal has used several methods to prevent rock and coal from falling at Donkin, including installing mesh screens and increasing the number of support bolts drilled into the rock.

It came up with a plan to evaluate its roof safety measures, but the Labour Department found the company wasn't following it, so inspectors ordered it to use more stringent roof support standards.

Instruments called telltales are used to measure roof movement, but inspectors found some were missing parts or were installed incorrectly, meaning the roof could have moved without detection. Telltales in the mine found that the roof in some areas had shifted up to nine centimetres.

Inspectors found "significant damage" at intersections where equipment was bumping into the walls and potentially affecting roof stability — a concern that has been echoed in reports ever since the mine opened.

'I feel the mine is safe,' says Scott Nauss, the senior director of inspection and compliance with the province's Labour Department. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

Nauss said there have been no instances of rocks falling after the roof has been shored up with support bolts.

"Employees have not been exposed to the potential of falling material from overhead," Nauss said.

One contractor was injured at the Donkin mine when a piece of coal fell from a wall and hit his ankle. That worker was able to return to work the next day, the Labour Department said.

Six other workers have been injured, including one who fell off a ladder, another who received a minor cut and others who suffered ergonomic injuries or the effects of repetitive strain. Two of the six injuries prevented the workers from reporting to work the next day.

Poor air quality monitoring

Six months after the mine opened, an inspector noted the company still didn't have an air quality monitoring program that met provincial regulations — even though the Labour Department had already reviewed it and made recommendations on how to improve it.

"There is no evidence to suggest that the employer has acted on any of the recommendations or advice provided," the report reads.

The mine was monitoring coal dust in the air, but not other potential contaminants miners could breathe in, such as silica, which can lead to respiratory failure.

A sign outside the Donkin mine outlines safety procedures. (CBC)

The monitoring that was taking place had "quality control" issues, the inspector found, including that the air sampling machine was sometimes used incorrectly.

However, the report notes that exposure to coal dust was within the acceptable limit.

Methane gas, one of the biggest explosion hazards in a coal mine, must be constantly monitored. But an inspector noted that one required monitor couldn't be located at all, while another monitor for an exhaust fan wasn't positioned properly to accurately detect methane levels. Two other methane monitors located in the same spot gave conflicting measurements.

'That's all it takes, is one spark'

The mine's methane monitoring is worrisome to Taje because inspectors have also repeatedly found electrical equipment in use underground that was not approved by the province.

"It is imperative that this practice not be repeated," an inspector noted in September.

Gary Taje is the international staff representative of the United Mine Workers of America. (Radio-Canada)

The province must inspect and approve certain pieces of electrical equipment to ensure they are safe and staff are trained on how to use them. If equipment is faulty, it could produce sparks that ignite methane and coal dust, causing an explosion.

"That's all it takes, is one spark," said Taje. "If you have unapproved electrics and you have methane and you have coal dust, you have an absolute horrific disaster in the making. That's everything you need to cause a Westray-type explosion."

A report from May 31, 2017, noted the inspector saw sparks generated while Donkin's continuous miner machine was cutting coal. Sparks generated by the cutting bits of the continuous miner were the source of ignition in the 1992 Westray explosion that killed 26 people in Plymouth, N.S.

Other violations

Among the many other concerns noted at the mine:

  • Inspectors found "mounds" of coal dust in one location that "did not appear to have only recently occurred." Coal dust can be explosive if it comes into contact with a heat source. Stockpiles of stone dust — used to help prevent explosions — were not available at that spot, while at others, stone dust was not being applied adequately.
  • An inspector entered the "lamp room" — a site on the surface where equipment is stored and distributed — and waited for about five minutes before an attendant arrived. That meant no one was on hand to activate the warning system that notifies people underground of an emergency requiring evacuation.
  • A "significant amount" of coal and water had collected next to a piece of equipment, making it difficult to get through the area. Water was "freely flowing" along the floor in another large area and water was also found pooled in front of a battery charging station, where a cable was lying in the water.
  • A water tap was missing for a fire hose, there were no fire extinguishers on shuttle cars and there was an "abundance of combustible material and garbage" in one location.

Some of the violations may seem relatively minor, but Taje said they can be indicative of a general attitude toward safety.

"When you see someone taking that kind of shortcuts on tiny little things, it makes you wonder how well they're looking after the big things," he said.

The mine was evacuated twice in July due to power failures in the area.

Record-keeping issues

Inspectors found many instances of poor record-keeping and inadequate policies at the mine.

Twice, inspectors noted concerns with the mine's occupational health and safety program, writing that it was "highly generic" and "does not provide sufficient detail for the size and complexity of an underground coal mine." The province said that issue has since been remedied.

An employee secures an entrance to the Donkin mine. (CBC)

There was no emergency management plan, fire detection system or plant-wide emergency alarm for the mine's coal-processing plant, which is at surface level. The province said it alerted the fire marshal's office about the deficiencies, and the plant is now in compliance with regulations.

Inspectors couldn't find posted instructions on how to evacuate the workplace, and found "little signage" to easily identify locations in the mine, which "could have an impact on emergency response." They also found that the required end-of-shift reports of ventilation, gas readings, ground conditions and other hazards contained "minimal information."

Questions about training

Kameron Coal declined an interview request from CBC News.

A statement attributed to company vice-president Shannon Campbell said it is "committed to a zero-harm workplace with no compliance orders."

In an interview last summer, Campbell said the company expected to have fewer workplace safety infractions as its "growing pains" subsided. In fact, the average number of infractions per inspection has fluctuated, but has not noticeably decreased.

Shannon Campbell is the vice-president of the Donkin mine. (CBC)

"Our Joint Occupational Health and Safety committee is engaged and helps ensure all employees are aware of their responsibilities under the act and all safety and compliance-related items are understood and communicated," read the statement, sent by PR firm M5.

An inspection in July 2017 found that the training requirements for the joint occupational health and safety committee members had not been met.

Frequent inspections

"The government of Nova Scotia has some of the most stringent underground subsea coal mining regulations in the world and we work closely with the local regulator to quickly resolve issues as they are identified," Campbell said in the statement. 

Taje agreed that the province's inspection regime is remarkable. At most mines, government inspections are done every four or five weeks, but at Donkin, inspectors visit roughly every two weeks.

"The inspection guys … they are working quite hard in Nova Scotia to make sure that that mine operates safely. I mean, it's almost unheard of to have an inspection in an underground working every two weeks by a government inspector. That's not normal."

Nauss said he feels the mine is safe.

"On the normal day-to-day operation, we are not seeing imminent danger," he said. "I believe the mine is operating safely and the company is committed to correcting any deficiencies that we are noting."

About the Author

Frances Willick

Reporter

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca