CB Post Downplays Donkin Safety Issues

News that the owners of the Donkin Mine have been hit with 29 safety violations and 10 compliance orders since operations began in February received markedly different coverage from the CBC and our local, pro-coal, daily newspaper.

Here’s the story as it appeared on the CBC website:

And here’s the Cape Breton Post version:

Certainly, Donkin mine manager Shannon Campbell seems very conscious of his own safety, sporting everything short of water wings and insulated oven mitts in that CB Post file photo. The Post would clearly have us believe that translates into a general, operation-wide concern for safety, but the details of the CBC story might make you think otherwise.

Granted, the CBC was working from documents released as a result of an access to information request (documents it could have made public, but didn’t, and which will not be available on the NS FOIPOP portal for another week or so). But the Post had access to the CBC story, and could have broken with its usual tradition of refusing to acknowledge the existence of the CBC and quoted that story extensively, had it so chosen.

Instead, where the CBC explained how many inspections had been carried out over what period of time and detailed the various violations and compliance orders, the Post summarized them briefly after opening with the assurance most were “non-imminent danger” violations.

Where the CBC spoke to Gary Taje, international staff representative of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), who expressed concern about the safety of the Donkin miners and reminded readers that it is a non-unionized mine where miners would be unlikely to complain about working conditions for fear of losing their jobs, the Post spoke to Campbell and Scott Nauss, senior director of inspection and compliance with the Nova Scotia Labour Department’s occupational health and safety division, who said comforting things like:

I would expect a large operation like this, operating in a heavily regulated environment, there will be some non-imminent danger violations along the way and that’s for the most part what we are seeing.

The company appears to be very committed to safety from what we see. We point out violations and they address them quickly.


Explosion barriers

The violations cited by the CBC read like precisely the sorts of details you’d read in a provincial inquiry following a fatal mining disaster:

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.

Inspectors at Donkin repeatedly found the water [explosion] 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.

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.

I find it interesting that both the inspector and the inspected offer the same excuse for non-compliance: this industry is so heavily regulated, there’s bound to be one or two or 29 violations when the inspectors arrive.

But why? If the regulations are in place for a reason and the mine operator has familiarized itself with those regulations, then why should explosion barriers be improperly sized and maintained? Why should daily air monitor tests be skipped or gas monitors calibrated monthly rather than weekly? Why should efforts to shore up damaged walls be insufficient?

As Susan Dodd explains elsewhere in this week’s Spectator, the issue following a mining disaster is rarely that the owners didn’t know what to do to reduce the chances of a disaster — it’s that they failed to do it.


Upper Big Branch

And just in case you’ve forgotten the kind of owners we’re dealing with here, let me jog your memories about the Cline Group, which owns Kameron Collieries which owns the Donkin mine.

This is an outfit that hired Chris Blanchard after an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch coal mine he’d been running for Massey Energy in West Virginia in 2010, killing 29 miners. Blanchard only escaped prosecution himself by cutting a deal to testify against Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who was found guilty of willfully conspiring to violate mine safety standards and sentenced to a year in prison.

As a Cline employee, Blanchard was part of the team tasked with setting up the Donkin mine, until a Global TV investigation (by the no-longer extant 16X9 program) raised concerns about his background with the NS government. Blanchard resigned in April 2016.

But the Cline Group doesn’t just hire people with questionable health and safety records, it has generated one of its own, which Global’s 16X9 explored in this 2016 documentary.  In it, they speak to a former top U.S. mine inspector who describes the type of community in which Cline operates in terms that Cape Bretoners should note:

Typically, it’s a one-horse economy, and that one-horse economy leads to people sort of getting an attitude that they can in fact operate in the fashion that they like to. And since they’re driving the jobs in these communities, they can get away with that.

Without a union to stand up for them, Donkin’s miners are dependent on government safety inspectors to monitor work conditions and media to keep the spotlight trained on the results of those inspections.

The safety inspectors and the CBC played their roles this week. The Cape Breton Post? Not so much.




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