Stop work order remains in place as investigators probe fire at Donkin mine

Coal trucks continue to take product from the underground coal mine in Donkin, N.S., on Monday, despite a fire in the mine the previous night. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Coal trucks continue to take product from the underground coal mine in Donkin, N.S., on Monday, despite a fire in the mine the previous night. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Coal production in Donkin, N.S. is on hold for now while Nova Scotia's Labour Department investigates a fire in Kameron Coal's underground mine.

The province says no one was in the mine when the fire broke out on Sunday and there were no injuries.

The fire is out, but it has left behind a lot of questions.

Gary Taje, a retired underground coal miner and a former mine rescue team member from Alberta, said any fire — no matter how small — is cause for concern.

"Any fire underground in a coal mine is extremely serious, not just from the flames themselves, but potential for igniting gases and explosion," he said.

James Edwards, District 8 councillor for Cape Breton Regional Municipality and a member of the Donkin mine's community liaison committee, said the fire involved the conveyor system.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Taje said that raises a key question, if no one was in the mine at the time.

"If the mine is idle, if there's no production, the question I would have I guess is why was the conveyor running?" he said.

Mine conveyors can become jammed by dust accumulation or other debris, such as rocks or coal. But they also should have an automatic shutoff system in case the belt stops moving, Taje said.

Gary O'Toole, senior executive director of Nova Scotia Labour's safety branch, said that question is part of the department's investigation.

The province issued a stop work order affecting underground operations at the mine on Sunday and inspectors were on site Monday.

O'Toole would not confirm whether the conveyor was the source, but said inspectors are looking into that and other factors.

"I can't confirm at this time the specific site of the fire or its cause, but certainly the questions that you have are the questions that we will have as part of our investigation," he said.

Rob Short/CBC
Rob Short/CBC

O'Toole could not say when the department might have answers.

"We really need to take the time to conduct that investigation and assess the situation and really understand thoroughly what led to the cause of that fire."

The stop work order will stay in place until the province is satisfied the mine is safe to resume production, he said.

Kameron Coal did not respond to requests for comment.

O'Toole said smoke was reported coming from the mine around 5:30 p.m. on Sunday and the department was notified around 7 p.m.

By 9:45 p.m., the department tweeted that the fire was under control.

Daniel Dillon/Facebook
Daniel Dillon/Facebook

Taje said any fire that takes a couple of hours to extinguish is a big fire and should be taken seriously.

He said the mine rescue team likely had to contend with heat and smoke in a confined space for several hours.

"It's not easy and it's a little bit scary," Taje said.

"Fortunately, no one was injured and no one succumbed to the gases produced by this fire. And the men that went down with the machines that they had, they're brave people that did their job to ensure that no one would suffer or the mine would not suffer."

Past warnings, orders and penalties

Mine operator Kameron Coal Management received 23 warnings, 28 compliance orders, and 11 administrative penalties or fines in its first four months after reopening in mid-September 2022.

The mine is not unionized, despite efforts by the United Mine Workers of America.

Taje, a former union executive member, said some of the mine operator's previous conflicts with the province have involved dust accumulation and the conveyor system, but O'Toole said he could not immediately confirm that.

The number of warnings, orders and penalties is not surprising given the complex nature of underground mining, O'Toole said, but the province will be reviewing past regulatory violations as part of its investigation.