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Around five months after Canada’s only underground coal mine reopened, government numbers show the operation is already receiving safety warnings, compliance orders and penalties reminiscent of those the company received when the mine was last open.

The Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton received 14 warnings, 19 compliance orders and eight administrative penalties between mid-September 2022 and Jan. 5, according to information from the Nova Scotia Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration provided to Canada’s National Observer, which did not detail the infractions. All were given to the operator, Kameron Coal, following inspections from the department.

The mine first opened in February 2017 but closed in 2020 after a series of roof falls. It reopened in September 2022 after the department lifted a stop-work order related to unsafe conditions.

Canada's National Observer reached out to Morien Resources, which has royalties in the mine and put out a press release about the mine reopening, but received no response by deadline.

The new numbers don’t detail the violations but still paint a picture of the safety culture at the mine, said Gary Taje, a retired underground miner and longtime international staff representative at United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Taje, who lives in Alberta and recently retired from his position at UMWA, said the new numbers tell him “the company hasn't learned anything.”

Especially concerning is the number of compliance orders, he explained. Compliance orders are given when an operation is violating underground mining regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

It’s hard to say how serious the offences are based on the numbers, but the number of compliance orders is “ridiculous,” he said.

“I mean, you shouldn't be getting any. This is what the act says ... so follow it. It's not a question of not knowing where the goalposts are.”

The Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton received 14 warnings, 19 compliance orders and eight administrative penalties between mid-September 2022 and Jan. 5, according to information from the Nova Scotia Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration.

Part of the reason Taje is alarmed is because of the mine’s storied history. Donkin, whose workers are not unionized, was plagued with problems from the time it opened until the mine’s closure in 2020.

During that time, the mine racked up 152 warnings, 119 compliance orders and 37 administrative penalties.

Those infractions ranged in severity, but safety violations in the mine’s first three months of operation show some offences that put workers in danger. They include:

  • Missing or malfunctioning safety equipment
  • Inadequate explosion barriers (which stop explosions from spreading in a mine)
  • Infrequent checking of flammable gas monitors
  • Insufficient record-keeping and training

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.

In a Canada’s National Observer investigation, an ex-miner from Donkin said many of those infractions were for relatively small things, like someone getting caught taking off their safety glasses, but there were many others that were more serious.

Breaking down the stats

When you average out the number of safety violations over each month, numbers are higher now than they were when the mine was first in operation.

The new statistics, which cover a four-month period, show the average number of safety warnings was 3.5 a month, while the average number of compliance orders was almost five. The monthly averages when the mine was first opened were about 2.4 safety warnings and 1.8 compliance orders per month. The most recent period recorded two administrative penalties each month, compared to less than one over the period the mine was originally open.

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"Donkin, whose workers are not unionized"--yeah, those folks need a union.