Cape Breton’s Invisible Coal Company

Media coverage of the weekend fire at the Donkin Mine may not have answered all the pertinent questions about the incident, but it revealed an interesting truth about the way Kameron Coal operates.

According to the Cape Breton Post, the province was alerted to the fire around 7:00 PM on Sunday, about 90 minutes after smoke was first detected in the mine.

Official confirmation of the fire came not from Kameron Coal, which has no social media presence that I can discover, but from the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration, which tweeted about the incident at 9:47 PM:

The Post writes:

Officials with Donkin Mine did not respond to a request for comment.

The Canadian Press story notes:

The mine’s owner, Kameron Coal Management Ltd., did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Monday.

The CBC states:

Kameron Coal did not respond to requests for comment.

The National Observer writes:

The company, Kameron Coal, did not return a request for comment.

Instead of speaking to a representative of the company operating the mine where a fire broke out this weekend, journalists spoke to representatives of our provincial and municipal governments and those representatives did their best to allay all fears about Kameron’s operations.

Because that’s totally normal.



The last time I wrote about the Donkin Mine was in connection with Kameron Coal’s surprise 2022 hire: former Glace Bay MLA and Nova Scotia Business Minister Geoff MacLellan, who’d been tapped as the company’s VP. I predicted that:

 …at some point—perhaps when it comes time to address the next roof fall or safety violation or mass lay-off or noise complaint—MacLellan will be presented publicly as the local face of the Donkin Mine’s owners.

I could not have been more wrong.

It’s been three days since the fire and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of VP MacLellan because rather than relying on a former elected official to communicate with us, Kameron prefers to use the Deputy Mayor of the CBRM—District 8 Councilor James Edwards—and Gary O’Toole, senior executive director for the Safety Branch of the provincial department of labour, skills and immigration.

Edwards has been an enthusiastic water-carrier for Donkin since he was first elected. He sits on the company’s community liaison committee (CLC) by virtue of representing District 8, in which the mine is located. He is there, one would presume, to represent the community and yet he’s become the public face of the company, a task that formerly fell to Donkin manager Shannon Campbell, who used to demonstrate Kameron’s commitment to safety by appearing regularly in the Post wearing, as I once remarked, “everything short of water wings and insulated oven mitts” by way of protective equipment:

A man in a hard hat in front of a pile of coal


Campbell’s Donkin career ended in March 2020, when Kameron Coal announced the mine was closing “due to geological conditions.” Rather than expecting him to announce his own lay-off, the company turned to Paul MacEachern of M5 Public Affairs, a former communications director with the provincial environment department and registered lobbyist for the company who was suddenly all over the media as a “spokesman for Kameron Collieries.” Here he is, for instance, speaking to the CBC:

Paul McEachern, a spokesperson for Kameron Collieries, said the company is disappointed, but the decision is final.

“The company has decided to close the mine,” he said. “I would not want to give a false impression that this is a pause. This a decision to cease operations at the mine.”

Of course, as you know, the rising price of coal caused a miraculous improvement in the mine’s “geological conditions” and in September 2022, Donkin re-opened. Since that reopening, Councilor Edwards has been the mine owner’s mouthpiece of choice:


A man in a ball cap in front of a Donkin Mine sign.


And true to form, it was Edwards who was out there fielding media questions about Sunday’s fire:


Cape Breton Post, April 30

James Edwards, the District 8 councillor for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, heard there was smoke coming from the mine between 7:30-8 p.m. Sunday night.

“The first thing someone thought there was a grassfire over around there but then the sirens started and the like,” he said.

“So I was on the phone, as you can imagine, last night and it turned out it was a fire with the belt system. Where the fire was, I don’t know. If it was just below the surface or in the yard, I don’t know.”

Smoke emerging from a building on the coast.

Fire at Donkin Mine (Photo by Daniel Dillon via Facebook)


CBC, April 30

Cape Breton Regional Municipality District 8 Coun. James Edwards said the fire involved the mine’s conveyor belt system, but no cause has been determined yet.

“The mine is just following the procedures to assess damage and take it from there,” said Edwards on Sunday. “But the big news is there’s no injuries — everyone’s safe.”


Canadian Press, April 30

Cape Breton Coun. James Edwards, who represents the municipal district where the mine is located, said he was informed of the fire by mine officials.

“They got back to me and said there was a problem with one of the (mine’s) belts and that they were following all of the protocols to address it,” Edwards, who also sits on the mine’s community liaison committee, said in an interview Monday.

He also said he didn’t know what specific piece of equipment was involved in the fire.

Although Edwards couldn’t speak to the severity of the fire, he said he was immediately concerned when he was first alerted to it.

“When I heard there was smoke coming from the mine everything stopped, that’s for sure, until we made sure that everything was under control,” he said.


It’s pretty brilliant, really: rather than paying a hired gun like MacEachern or sending an actual company employee out to answer questions about where the fire happened, what “specific piece of equipment was involved” or how severe it was, you just feed the deputy mayor some scraps of information and let him do the talking for you free of charge. You get to lurk in the background, the unnamed, unaccountable “Kameron officials” of “no comment” fame.


Devil in the details

As for O’Toole, his job is to insist that Kameron racking up a “large number of compliance orders and penalties” since it re-opened last September is a good sign. As he told the Post:

This is one of the most regulated and most visited worksites in Nova Scotia from a safety perspective and so the corresponding number of orders and penalties should not be surprising to anyone and it is really because we are paying attention to all the detail.

O’Toole says they conduct “unannounced inspections” in the mine every “couple of weeks” and yet they continue to find violations. The implication seems to be that left to their own devices, companies will always break the rules, but subject to regular inspections they will…also continue to break the rules?

The province has issued a stop-work order while it investigates the cause of the fire and, per O’Toole:

We won’t rescind that order until we are satisfied there is compliance with all the safety rules.

Except they’ve been letting this company operate for eight months despite its failure to comply with “all the safety rules,” including safety rules related to the conveyor belt that apparently caused the fire. Back in January, the CBC published a full list of the warnings, compliance orders and penalties the company had racked up since reopening and they included:


Sept. 21 – Failure to maintain pull cords along conveyors.

Dec. 21 – Unapproved equipment taken in the mine that could produce heat or fire.

Dec. 21 – Failure to maintain pull cords along conveyors.

Dec. 21 – Employer’s procedure for maintaining fire doors not implemented.


Nov. 1 – Flammable gas monitor calibration records not properly maintained.

Nov. 17 – Employer’s procedure for maintaining fire door equipment not fully implemented.

Administrative penalties:

Dec. 21 – Failure to maintain pull cords along conveyors.

Note that the pull cords, used to stop the conveyor belts in the case of an emergency, that were not being maintained in September 2022 were still not being maintained three months later. That might not have been germane to this particular incident as apparently there was no one in the mine to pull the cords at the time the fire broke out, but as Gary Taje, a retired underground miner and longtime international staff representative at United Mine Workers of America, told the National Observer:

Some of the infractions that the inspection department brought up pointed exactly to something like this happening. So, I’m not going to say that the company wanted this fire to happen, but I won’t call it accidental.

I really hope that this is a bit of a wakeup call for that company to start looking after all the little things you should be looking at to prevent the ignition of anything.


Community liaison

The real kicker in the Post story, though, came from Deputy Mayor Edwards’ fellow community liaison committee member, Claude Peach, who told the paper that while he sits on the CLC, his only information about the fire had come from news outlets:

We have a meeting once maybe every couple of months and they just tell us what they want to tell us. Whether they’d disclose any information on this or not, I’m not sure.

That kind of destroys Edwards’ credibility as a source of information about Donkin, given that credibility rests largely on his role as a member of the liaison committee and Peach is basically saying the liaison committee is a sham.

But why Edwards would even want to be viewed as a credible spokesperson for a coal company baffles me. What’s in it for him? Wouldn’t the proper response for a councilor in his situation be to demand answers? To insist the company make a representative available to the press for questioning? To make a point of siding with the people in his district and the workers in the mine rather than the absentee owners of the company? (The Donkin Mine is owned by a Delaware-registered Cline Group subsidiary called Cutlass Collieries whose CEO lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.)

I mean, siding with Kameron worked out for MacLellan, but how many invisible VPs does one company need?