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Premier says N.S. government sticking to its guns on reopening of Donkin coal mine

Premier Tim Houston says the decision to reopen the Donkin coal mine is up to operator Kameron Coal, as long as the province's safety regulations and compliance orders are met. (CBC - image credit)
Premier Tim Houston says the decision to reopen the Donkin coal mine is up to operator Kameron Coal, as long as the province's safety regulations and compliance orders are met. (CBC - image credit)

There's still no indication when the underground coal mine in Donkin, N.S., could reopen.

Critics have said government delays are keeping about 130 workers off the job more than four months after the province issued a stop-work order on the mine following two roof falls in July.

But Premier Tim Houston met with mine operator Kameron Coal on Thursday and afterwards said safety is the government's priority and the decision on whether — or when — to reopen is up to the company.

"We had to do what we had to do as a government to ensure it was safe, should it reopen following the path that's been offered, and if they follow that path, we can be comfortable, Nova Scotians can be comfortable that the miners will be safe," Houston said. "I hope they do, but that's their decision to make."

The Department of Labour has said the mine can reopen now if the company updates its safety plans and increases monitoring of roof movements.

The company also has to hire a third-party consultant to advise on safe mining operation during periods of high humidity, which mostly occur in spring, summer and fall. A report on that must be received by the end of February if the company wants to operate this spring.

Houston said Kameron Coal officials appear to be working to fulfil the conditions needed to reopen the mine, but have not told him whether they've made the decision to reopen.

Premier Houston says Kameron Coal appears to be working on fulfilling the conditions needed to reopen, but says the company has not told him its intentions.
Premier Houston says Kameron Coal appears to be working on fulfilling the conditions needed to reopen, but says the company has not told him its intentions.

Premier Houston says Kameron Coal appears to be working on fulfilling the conditions needed to reopen, but says the company has not told him its intentions. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"It's certainly my hope that they take that path and that the mine can be opened and the safety of the miners be front and centre," he said.

Company officials also wanted an assurance that future stop-work orders would not result in lengthy closures.

Houston would only say the process this summer could have moved a little faster.

"That was shared with them, but [I'm] certainly not in a position to give any assurances as to how long they might be closed should something happen," he said.

"We did what we believed and still believe was necessary to ensure the safety of the mine and they had a different perspective of that timeline."

Dalhousie University professor Andrew Corkum's report calls for updates to the mine's safety plans, increased roof monitoring and an independent report on working in high humidity.
Dalhousie University professor Andrew Corkum's report calls for updates to the mine's safety plans, increased roof monitoring and an independent report on working in high humidity.

Dalhousie University professor Andrew Corkum's report calls for updates to the mine's safety plans, increased roof monitoring and an independent report on working in high humidity. (David Laughlin/CBC)

After the second roof fall in July, the labour department issued a stop-work order and told the mine operator to hire a third-party engineering firm to report on the company's remediation efforts and safety plans. That review showed roof falls are more common when humidity is higher.

The government then waited nearly two months before hiring its own third-party expert, Dalhousie engineering professor Andrew Corkum, to examine the report commissioned by Kameron Coal.

In mid-November, Corkum's report was released, calling for updated safety plans, increased roof monitoring and an independent report on underground mining in humid conditions.

Morien Resources CEO Dawson Brisco says the regulatory process would be faster if the labour department hired more staff and avoided using third-party consultants.
Morien Resources CEO Dawson Brisco says the regulatory process would be faster if the labour department hired more staff and avoided using third-party consultants.

Morien Resources CEO Dawson Brisco says the regulatory process would be faster if the labour department hired more staff and avoided using third-party consultants. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Some people connected to the mine say the province's reliance on third-party consultants means the labour department is not properly staffed to regulate the mine.

On Thursday, Labour Minister Jill Balser told reporters the department understands Kameron Coal's concerns about the length of time involved in the latest stop-work order, but she said the department also remains focused on safety.

"The department will, going forward, contract third parties when necessary and in this particular situation, that's exactly what we did," she said.

"We needed [that] expertise to understand what is happening in the mine to cause these roof falls and because of that work, we now understand how humidity plays a role."

No way to guarantee perfect safety: premier

Houston said after the second roof fall, the company did extensive bolting to hold the roof in place and went further by adding mesh between the bolts to catch any material that might fall.

But he said there is no way to guarantee any workplace is perfectly safe.

Regardless, Houston said, the government has important safety regulations that a mine operator has to meet.

"They're miners. They operate mines and they have an expectation, a tolerance for what it means to be a miner and I'm a premier and we're a government and we have maybe a different expectation of an acceptance of risk."

Houston says he sympathizes with laid-off miners

Meanwhile, about 130 mine workers have been laid off and community officials have said that is hurting families and the local economy.

Houston said he sympathizes.

"I certainly understand that's had an impact, but we can never lose sight of what is ... the main goal and that's a safe mine."

Kameron Coal typically does not talk to media and no one from the company returned a request for comment.

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