When Dave looks back on his time working at Cape Breton’s Donkin mine, he shivers at the unsafe tasks he was required to do. Among the worst: humping 60-pound carbon-fibre ventilation tubes over a moving conveyor belt.
“So these tubes are covered in wet mud, which makes them triple as heavy and way slippery,” said Dave, who worked at the mine between 2018 and 2019, and spoke on the condition his real name not be used for fear of blowback from his community.
Dave said he’d throw a tube onto the moving belt with all his might, then climb on to manoeuvre it over.
“One slip, and I’d be caught in it and ripped in half.”
The former miner’s safety concerns are reflected by more than a dozen roof cave-ins, 152 warnings, 119 compliance orders, 37 administrative penalties and a series of provincial stop-work orders at the Donkin mine from the time it opened in 2017 until its closure in 2020. When production stopped, the mine’s U.S.-based owner, Kameron Coal, said “challenging” geological conditions made operations unsustainable.
Now, the Nova Scotia government has given the green light for the mine to reopen. In an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer, the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration said it received seven safety plans from Kameron Coal in late June, which have been approved, paving the way for the reopening.
In a press release, the department said inspectors were on site Tuesday, when operations officially resumed. It will require inspections — both announced and unannounced — paired with monthly reports submitted by Kameron Coal on “ventilation, main fan and emergency power supply, and reports for stone dust sampling” moving forward. In areas of the mine where rock falls happened before the closure, a stop-work order remains, the department said.
"All Nova Scotians deserve to return home to their families at the end of the work day," said Jill Balser, minister of labour, skills and immigration. "Our priority is to make sure workplaces have the right safety plans in place, especially those with a higher level of risk."
More than a dozen roof cave-ins, 152 warnings, 119 compliance orders, 37 administrative penalties and a series of provincial stop-work orders. Nova Scotia's Donkin coal mine reopened this week, begging the question: what has changed?
In the same statement, the department confirmed the industrial approval of the mine expires in December, and Kameron Coal’s application for renewal, filed in September, will receive a response within 60 days. They will need an approval to continue operations.
Canada’s National Observer has made multiple attempts over the past month to contact Kameron Coal through numerous channels but was not able to get comment on what steps the company would take to prevent further collapses now that the mine has reopened. The company doesn’t have a listed media contact, but Anthony Webb, president of Kameron Coal, was contacted multiple times through email and LinkedIn.
The reopening announcement was made by Morien Resources, which has royalties in the mine and sometimes speaks on behalf of the company. Canada's National Observer reached out to the company leading up to the mine’s reopening and after the announcement was made but received no response.
A complex history of coal mining is woven into the identity of Nova Scotia, and miners will snap up jobs at the underground mines, despite the considerable risks. There have been past tragedies. In 1992, a massive methane and coal dust explosion killed 26 miners at the Westray Mine in nearby Pictou County. But unemployment rates in Cape Breton usually hover in the double digits — typically double that of mainland Nova Scotia — so for many, mining jobs are welcome.
Feelings about the Donkin mine are mixed, despite the litany of safety violations racked up during its short tenure. Some people welcome the jobs and embrace the mine: others feel the potential safety risks and environmental costs are too great, and question the wisdom of allowing it to reopen. LeRoy Peach, who was born in Port Morien 15 minutes from Donkin, sees it as “a multi-faceted… global issue.” Mine safety, the trucking of coal, greenhouse gas emissions and the noise pollution all concern the retired schoolteacher.
“I hope that the provincial government is not naive about this reopening because they could look very, very badly if something goes wrong,” said Peach.
“The provincial government is going to have egg on their face because there’s the possibility for serious things to happen there because of the geology of the mine.”
He adds that Kameron Coal “has never consulted us directly, really. ”
Tynette Deveaux, with Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Atlantic campaign, says Donkin’s safety record leaves her speechless.
“I think [those numbers] mean we're playing with people's lives,” she said, noting the Sierra Club is calling for permanent closure of the mine.
“It simply affirms the fact that companies can promise whatever they want and then they get a slap on the wrist when they don't comply. At what point do we look at a corporation as a bad actor and say their promise isn't worth the napkin it’s scribbled on?”
The company behind the mine
Kameron Coal’s parent company is the Cline Group, founded by the late Chris Cline, a former miner who became a billionaire with a net worth estimated by Forbes to be US$1.8 billion in 2019. Cline was a Marshall University dropout who made his fortune in coal. Climate change was not on his radar. He once said: “I believe in our children’s lifetimes that they’ll wish they had paid us per ton to put more CO2 in the air.” As of 2019, coal-fired electricity was responsible for 30 per cent of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
Kameron Coal’s unenviable safety record at Donkin was echoed at its other North American properties. The company's mines in West Virginia and Illinois received 8,000 safety violations between 2004 and 2016.
In 2018, Cline spoke with Forbes about the Donkin mine, saying it could generate $500 million a year within a decade, which would include $100 million for him.
A year later, he died in a helicopter crash in the Bahamas off the coast of one of his private islands along with his daughter Kameron. She and her friend had fallen gravely ill and were flying to the U.S. to receive medical attention when the helicopter went down. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board ruled the cause of the crash was pilot error. After Cline’s death, then-president Donald Trump offered his sympathies, calling Cline, who was a major donor to the party, “a wonderful man and great Republican!”
The Cline Group also backed an Alberta coal mine that was shuttered and marked insolvent in 2021 but has since come back from the brink.
From its inception, the Donkin mine was rife with problems. Safety violations in the mine’s first three months of operation included: missing or malfunctioning safety equipment; inadequate explosion barriers (which stop explosions from spreading in a mine); infrequent checking of flammable gas monitors; and insufficient record keeping and training, among other offences. After a year, the department was still finding a slew of issues, such as improper air monitoring and rescue teams that would take hours to assemble in the case of an accident.
Dave said many of those infractions were for relatively small things, like someone getting caught taking off their safety glasses, but that “there is a million more than that…like there was a whole fucking universe of way worse shit going on,” he said.
Corners were constantly cut because of production bonuses, which rewarded miners for digging a certain amount of coal, Dave said.
He shudders to remember the lack of precautions taken around heavy equipment safety, particularly at how little lockout, tagout procedure was used. Very commonly used when heavy machinery is on a job site, this procedure requires a physical lock to be put on a device to ensure it’s properly shut down when any sort of maintenance is needed. That often didn’t happen, and Dave recalls machines starting up when they shouldn’t have. He was once forced to jump off a moving conveyor belt when it started up, moving him towards a rock crusher, which breaks coal into smaller pieces. He doesn’t remember ever being fitted for a respirator.
A couple of the rock falls were unsettling, but Dave said they mostly occurred in places workers anticipated. Tell tales, monitoring devices drilled into the ceiling of a mine, showed when roofs were sinking and getting weaker, and those areas were marked as high risk. During some inspections, government officials found instances where tell tales were improperly installed.
There were also many more roof collapses than actually reported, and with them were some near misses, Dave said. He remembers a near miss when a machine and team of workers were trying to remedy a roof issue and a massive chunk of rock fell near where he was working.
“They would often cut longer cuts than they were supposed to, [which would] cause more unstable roof conditions. But if you cut 40 feet at once, instead of doing two 20-foot cuts, it's just way quicker,” he said, explaining that in room-and-pillar mining, you mine certain areas but leave enough coal standing to support the room.
“To reach these (production) bonuses, they would cut these corners, these unsafe corners.”
Union busting at the mine
The rock falls at Donkin were “major” and had the “potential to harm a large number of individuals,” said Gary Taje, a retired underground miner and longtime international staff representative at United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Taje, who lives in Alberta, recently retired from his position at UMWA.
He said the large number of safety warnings is a red flag, although he echoed Dave by assuming many of them might have been relatively harmless offences. But, he added, “there was some very serious stuff, which basically shows that the company doesn't care what the regulations are, or what health and safety is for the guys.”
He cited, for example, a $2,000 fine the mine received in 2019 for accumulation of coal dust, which Taje notes as especially troubling because it can cause an explosion.
The company was also fined the same amount for not using the original roof plan it presented to the government.
Although Taje and UMWA support the opening of mines in general, he said Kameron Coal will need to make serious changes to make the operation safe. At the same time, he notes, “they're very anti-union, which basically is working to their detriment.”
Workers must be able to voice concerns especially when working in precarious environments like an underground mine, he added.
Dave experienced that sentiment first hand when Kameron Coal passed out fliers to the workers threatening to fire them if they spoke about unionizing with their coworkers.
The promise of jobs
When the mine initially opened, the promise of employment was exciting to much of the community because it was the first mine to operate on the island since 2001. However, within a year, the mine laid off 49 of its 130 employees. That dream was further crushed when news broke that the company was hiring American employees through the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program, paying some of them double the wages of local employees. Usually, people are fined for misusing the TFW program by underpaying employees; Kameron was fined for overpaying.
Originally, the government of Canada ordered Kameron Coal to pay $230,000 and was banned from using the TFW program for a decade, but that was later cut back to a $54,000 fine and a one-year ban, which has since expired. The fine was still the largest ever for misuse in the program’s history.
That doesn’t surprise Dave, who wasn’t previously aware of the fine. He said he remembered Americans being brought in and people feeling bitter after catching wind of how much more they were making. Still, the locals were thankful for their jobs. Dave said the entire time he worked at Donkin, he alternated between feeling grateful, unsure and scared. Now that the mine’s open again, he admits he’s happy to hear it, but that a drastic shift in safety culture will need to occur to prevent injuries.
“When I lived there, it supported me, it supported a lot of my friends, my family. But it was really unsafe,” he said.