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Critics slam N.S. labour department over lack of Donkin coal mine inspections

Morien Resources CEO Dawson Brisco says the Nova Scotia Labour Department's reliance on outside experts this summer has unnecessarily delayed the Donkin coal mine's reopening in Cape Breton. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Morien Resources CEO Dawson Brisco says the Nova Scotia Labour Department's reliance on outside experts this summer has unnecessarily delayed the Donkin coal mine's reopening in Cape Breton. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia's Labour Department is coming under fire for not inspecting the underground coal mine in Donkin after it shut down following two roof falls in the main access tunnel in July.

Instead, the province's inspectors did site visits and relied on two third-party reviews before saying the Cape Breton mine can reopen.

Critics say the use of outside expertise has dragged out the shutdown unnecessarily.

"We just have one problem and that is a regulator that is not equipped to regulate this mine," said Dawson Brisco, CEO of Morien Resources, a company with a royalty stake in the Donkin mine.

The mine opened in 2017 and the province has had enough time since then to get the experts on staff it needs to enforce mine regulations, Brisco said.

James Edwards, Cape Breton Regional Municipality's deputy mayor and a member of the community liaison committee that includes mine operator Kameron Coal, said the company did extensive work on the roof after the second fall in July.

CBRM deputy mayor James Edwards, a member of the Donkin mine's community liaison committee, says he's been told that provincial inspectors gave the mine the thumbs-up this summer.
CBRM deputy mayor James Edwards, a member of the Donkin mine's community liaison committee, says he's been told that provincial inspectors gave the mine the thumbs-up this summer.

CBRM deputy mayor James Edwards, a member of the Donkin mine's community liaison committee, says he's been told that provincial inspectors gave the mine the thumbs-up this summer. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The province should have reopened the mine by now because the closure put about 130 miners out of work and created negative spin-off effects for local suppliers and businesses, he said.

Edwards said the company has told him that inspectors gave the mine the thumbs-up during two site visits this summer and two third-party reviews have agreed.

"There were all told four positive reports that the mine was safe and ready to resume operation," he said.

After the second roof fall, the province required Kameron Coal to hire a third-party mining engineering firm to review the company's remediation work in the access tunnel and its safety plans.

Scott Nauss, senior executive director with the Labour Department's safety branch, said the province then sought its own third-party expert to review that report and the mine's history.

The company's consultant's report was filed Aug. 4 and the province ordered its own review at the end of September. That report was released Nov. 15.

The company's consultant's report found that humidity was a key factor in rock falls in the Donkin mine, which Nauss said was new information to the department.

Scott Nauss, Nova Scotia Labour's senior executive director of safety, says the department has the capability to regulate the mine properly, but occasionally needs outside help.
Scott Nauss, Nova Scotia Labour's senior executive director of safety, says the department has the capability to regulate the mine properly, but occasionally needs outside help.

Scott Nauss, Nova Scotia Labour's senior executive director of safety, says the department has the capability to regulate the mine properly, but occasionally needs outside help. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

He said the province can handle most inspections, but the only subsea coal mine in the world sometimes presents unique challenges that fall outside the expertise of the department's three dedicated mine inspectors.

"There was some new information in the report from the mine company's consultant that climatic conditions were playing a role in these rock falls and so with that, and the complexity of the situation, the department felt it was in the best interests to hire an expert in ground control," Nauss said.

"The inspectors are capable, but in this case due to the complexity and due to the fact that we believe humidity was playing a role in this situation, we felt that it warranted the need to consult a world renowned expert," Nauss said.

Not every site visit requires an inspection, but in this case, the department wanted to do its due diligence in the name of safety, he said.

The province says the underground coal mine in Donkin is the most heavily regulated and inspected workplace in Nova Scotia.
The province says the underground coal mine in Donkin is the most heavily regulated and inspected workplace in Nova Scotia.

The province says the underground coal mine in Donkin is the most heavily regulated and inspected workplace in Nova Scotia. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The department has said the mine is the most heavily regulated and inspected workplace in the province.

Nauss said the department is currently looking over another third-party report after a review of the coal production area, but it was too soon to comment on the results.

In the meantime, the mine can reopen, but first Kameron Coal has to update its safety plan and increase the monitoring of roof movements.

No one has been injured, despite the mine experiencing 32 roof falls of over three tonnes of material since it opened in 2017.

That includes the more than two years the mine was shut down by the operator due to what it called "challenging" geologic conditions following a series of roof falls in 2019 and 2020.

About 150 people attended a rally in Glace Bay recently to show support for the 130 Donkin coal mine workers who were laid off after a four-month shutdown.
About 150 people attended a rally in Glace Bay recently to show support for the 130 Donkin coal mine workers who were laid off after a four-month shutdown.

About 150 people attended a rally in Glace Bay recently to show support for the 130 Donkin coal mine workers who were laid off after a four-month shutdown. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The company is scheduled to meet with the premier later this week and Edwards said he hopes that will help get the mine reopened sooner.

He also said the mine operator is hoping future events underground, assuming they are not severe, won't result in another lengthy shutdown.

"If the mine is closed for whatever reason, depending on the severity of it, of course, they need some kind of an assurance that they're not going to be closed down again for another four or five months, because I mean it's big business, it's a big operation," he said.

Nauss said that is not something the department can provide.

"We will try to minimize business interruptions when we can and we will be in constant, transparent communication with the mining company, but we do have to keep safety as our top priority," he said.

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