Mine Safety (and Media Priorities)

I’m writing on Wednesday morning and the front page of the Cape Breton Post (print edition) features a story about the management of the Donkin coal mine failing to report a “massive roof cave-in,” in contravention of provincial regulations.

To be completely factual: the front page of the Post features a story about CBRM Council’s “annual challenge” of setting a budget and a big puff piece about a new Centre 200 mobile app that allows you to order food delivered to your seat. The Donkin story is a side bar along the right-hand side of the page.

The online version of the paper, as of 8:00 a.m. this morning, was even worse:



I get, by the way, that the web site may automatically prioritize newer stories, but is that really an excuse?

Moreover, I couldn’t help but notice that the featured story about the sale of Walter’s Party Supplies was written by Sharon Montgomery-Dupe, the reporter often assigned to the Donkin Mine stories. Not this time, though — the Donkin story, based on information acquired via a freedom-of-information request, is by the Canadian Press. (In the SaltWire Network’s defense, they promised — in those full-page ads featuring their own reporters — to tell us “stories” not to commit investigative journalism.)

Montgomery-Dupe usually speaks to Shannon Campbell, vice president of project development for Kameron Coal, the Cline Group subsidiary that owns Donkin, and Campbell assures her the mine’s owners put “safety first.

Campbell is cited in the CP story — sort of:

The firm sent an email attributed to Shannon Campbell, Kameron’s vice president of project development, that said the company is working closely with the inspectors to resolve the issue.

The subtext there, in case you missed it, is:  “Somebody in the Cline organization wrote a statement and signed Shannon Campbell’s name to it because he’s the friendly, local face of the company, not anyone with any actual authority.”



Roof falls

You can read the CP story online, but here’s a bit of what the reporters found in the inspectors’ reports they FOIPOPed:

The first cave-in occurred Sept. 18, and initially went unreported, according to the documents drafted by provincial inspectors.

The managers of the Donkin, N.S., colliery also didn’t initially report a second, Oct. 1 cave-in until provincial officials arrived two days later, the documents say.

According to the reports, the inspectors asked a series of questions on the morning of Oct. 3 before learning the extent of the damage in two incidents of tonnes of roof falling as a system of bolts gave way.

The inspectors write that they were told by the senior vice president of operations that no operations were under way at the mine because a belt drive was being set up and extra roof support was being added.

“When questioned as to the reason for the installation … we were informed that two roof falls … had occurred in the No. 1 entry of the North Bleeder panel,” they wrote in their report.

The documents say both collapses had spanned the entire six-metre width of a passage, as slabs of rock fell and left a ceiling gap up to almost four metres deep.

The first rock fall ran over 18 metres along the underground roadway, while the second was about a third of the length of a football field.

The documents say the inspectors also learned of two more roof falls at intersections of the mine, but details aren’t provided of their severity.

That’s four roof falls in total — none reported to provincial regulators.

Two more collapses — one on December 18 (while the mine was on Christmas break) and and another on December 28 led to the suspension of the mine’s licence to operate but in January, the province allowed work to continue in one area and is “now awaiting a fresh plan from the company on how it intends to ensure roof safety.”



No one has been injured in any of these roof falls, but the story sent me back to Global TV’s 2016 documentary on the Cline Group — the American company, headed by billionaire Chris Cline, that owns Donkin.

The film documents the Cline Group’s safety and environmental record across two states — West Virginia and Illinois — zeroing in on one particular mine in Illinois that was cited for violating mining safety regulations 92 times in two years. Asked what the implications of those violations were for people in Cape Breton, Ellen Smith, managing editor of Mine Safety & Health News, said:

My question would be, what are you going to do to make sure you do not have the violations in that mine that we see here in the US?

The 16X9 documentary aired in April 2016. Operations at the Donkin Mine began in February 2017, and within six months, as reported by the CBC, the owners had racked up 29 safety violations and 10 compliance orders. After a full year of operations, those totals had risen to 35 compliance orders and 71 warnings.

Now we hear that not only is the mine experiencing repeated roof falls — the company is not bothering to report these roof falls to regulators.

But the problem at Donkin doesn’t seem to be a lack of inspections — between the end of February 2017 and the end of February 2018 the province carried out 26 inspections, more than two per month.

So, you have sufficiently stringent rules and you seem to have adequate oversight and yet….the roof keeps collapsing in this coal mine you’re monitoring. Could it be that the mine owners aren’t bothered by your inspections and warnings and citations? Could it be they’ve done the math and decided it’s worth their while to take a few risks? Are we really just going to hang around and see how that plays out?

I see only one reasonable answer to the conundrum of the unsafe coal mine and I’ll give you a hint, it’s the one the climate scientists would endorse.



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