Since Canada’s only underground mine reopened last September, a worker has been injured and the operation has received multiple safety infractions related to methane monitoring and fire hazards.

Between September 2022 and January 2023, the Donkin mine in Cape Breton received 14 warnings, 19 compliance orders and eight administrative penalties, all violations of the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Fred Jeffers, executive director of Nova Scotia’s occupational health and safety branch of the labour department, explained in an interview that the government has been conducting ample safety inspections at the site due to the precarious nature of underground mining. There are “hundreds” of requirements the operator, Kameron Coal, must abide by, he said. Donkin is the world’s only subsea coal mine, according to the province.

“It's expected that we're gonna find things, and we take the appropriate action to bring them into compliance. And that's exactly what we're doing,” said Jeffers.

“We take our role very seriously in this. I mean, this is the most inspected workplace in Nova Scotia, there's no question about it, and we put a lot of rigour in our compliance and enforcement.”

Canada’s National Observer reached out to Kameron Coal but did not receive a response.

The Donkin mine site is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Photo courtesy of Morien Resources Corp.

The many inspections have uncovered numerous safety issues, documents obtained by Canada’s National Observer through a freedom of information request show. The documents break down the mine’s safety violations since its reopening, adding to concerns raised when the mine was in operation between 2017 and 2020.

One inspection notes a worker was injured on Oct. 5, 2022, while operating a roof bolter, which secures the roof of the mine with a hydraulic system.

The Donkin coal mine reopened in September. Since then, there have been numerous safety violations relating to methane monitoring, fire hazards and more. We got our hands on documents that break down what it’s been like since the reopening.

“The retractable protective canopy that protects the operators dropped suddenly striking the injured worker on the head. Prior to this occurrence, the operators were having trouble lowering the canopy,” reads the document, which includes redacted sections.

The incident prompted a compliance order to prohibit the use of the flawed equipment, which noted the equipment “presented a potential hazard to employees.”

“It's extremely dangerous,” said Gary Taje, a retired underground miner and longtime international staff representative at United Mine Workers of America, referring to the incident at Donkin, which is not unionized.

“And it points to the company not caring that their equipment is maintained in a way that protects the safety of their employees.”

A portion of an inspection report by Nova Scotia's Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration obtained by Canada's National Observer.

The administrative penalties the company has received since September are evidence of this indifference, Taje said. Administrative penalties can be issued for any safety violation, but guidelines show that penalties should be given when “the contravention pose[s] a serious risk to health or life” or if a company has repeatedly made the same violation.

In November, a penalty of $2,000 was given for a missing methane monitor. Methane is released during coal mining and measuring levels is necessary because high concentrations of the greenhouse gas can trigger an explosion. The penalty said there “had been multiple occurrences of non-compliance in relation to this requirement.” There were other mentions of methane monitoring and carbon monoxide monitoring not being up to code.

The penalty is especially egregious when coupled with penalties and orders around unapproved equipment, Taje said.

In December, unapproved battery-operated hand tools, including a drill, impact driver, batteries and an angle driver, were found in the mine in a toolbox. A second toolbox was found with a battery and grinding discs, which are “capable of producing heat or fire,” according to the report. In November, an underground transport vehicle was found to be using unoriginal, unapproved rear lighting.

“There's always some sparking in electrical systems. When you turn off, turn on, stuff like that,” Taje explained.

“So if you don't have an intrinsically safe piece of electrical equipment, and then you get into an area where [methane] monitoring isn't taking place and there is methane there and the guy shuts something off, turns something on, you have the initial impact that could start a devastating explosion.”

A portion of an inspection report by Nova Scotia's Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration obtained by Canada's National Observer.

Other safety violations that posed fire hazards include compressed gas cylinders that were improperly stored, an unqualified worker doing electrical work, no scrubber (which reduces combustible coal dust) in use while cutting coal, fire doors that were improperly maintained, missing fire hydrants, a flammable aerosol container found on the floor, and no stone dust (which prevents explosions) available in a certain section of the mine.

Taje also pointed out penalties for an improperly installed pullcord, which is an emergency stop device in a mine that will immediately halt a trolley carrying workers, for example. There were also instances of poor recordkeeping, he added, such as a warning that said there were no records on the calibration of gas monitors.

Donkin was closed after a stop-work order in 2020 following numerous roof falls, but inspection reports detail the mine’s roof and rib conditions as “good” multiple times. The province’s labour department confirmed there have been no roof falls in the working areas of the mine since September, but said there have been three roof falls in areas “not currently approved for production work.”

“The current production area is a section of mine now, where the geology is really better from a roof-control perspective,” said Jeffers.

Taje points out that one penalty was issued for an incorrectly set telltale, a monitoring device drilled into the ceiling of a mine that shows when roofs sink and get weaker.

Overall, Taje said things like monitoring methane and making sure you have proper equipment aren’t difficult, but neglecting them can lead to “catastrophic” events.

“It basically shows our need to get coal out cheaply and quickly supersedes any employee safety or mine continuity.”

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This is a disaster waiting to happen, this coal mine should be shut down

Canada used to rely on capable expert advice from a strong independent civil service. I had to ask why our present governments continue to make the worst choices such as small nuclear, carbon capture and storage, reopening coal mines and hydrogen produced from green energy sources. The response was "because it's what the lobbyists want". We are faced with industry capture of most of our democratic institutions. Our government Ministers seem oblivious to the fact that the advice they are being given has been corrupted. Alberta's Kevin Taft wrote about this in his book "Oil's Deep State". The book is must read for anyone that wants to save democracy and the planet at the same time.

The industry always has to be dragged to safety measures, kicking. My grandfather died in a coal mine in 1934, in Drumheller. He moved there after the mine in Cumberland killed the whole night shift; and he was moved to the new night shift, whereupon it blew up again and killed the day shift. This was about 1924.

I'm glad we're down to just the one coal mine 100 years later. May its remaining life be short.

Hey, there is really good news about coal mines - as long as they're very long dead and full of water, and located near structures that need green heat:

...some big opportunities there in Nova Scotia, apparently!