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A fire erupted at Canada’s only underground coal mine Sunday night, following years of safety concerns for workers.

No employees were underground during the fire at Cape Breton’s Donkin coal mine, and the Nova Scotia Department of Labour is currently investigating the cause. At a press conference on Monday afternoon, the department confirmed the fire happened underground but added officials don’t know what started it.

The mine is contentious in the small community. Unemployment rates in Cape Breton usually hover in the double digits — typically double that of mainland Nova Scotia — and some welcome the mining jobs. Others say the safety and environmental risks warrant a permanent shutdown and that the province should support safer employment opportunities.

While the province couldn’t confirm the cause of the fire, local councillor James Edwards told the CBC the mine's conveyor belt system was involved. The company, Kameron Coal, did not return a request for comment.

The mine reopened last September after closing in 2020 when more than a dozen roof cave-ins prompted a series of on-and-off stop-work orders from the province. Between September 2022 and April 2023, the mine received 23 warnings, 28 compliance orders and 11 administrative penalties, all violations of the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Some of those safety infractions pertained to the conveyor belt, including multiple instances of its pull cord not being maintained properly. The cord stops the conveyor if something goes wrong, explained Gary Taje, a retired underground miner and longtime international staff representative at United Mine Workers of America.

Other violations had to do with methane monitoring and fire hazards.

“Some of the infractions that the inspection department brought up pointed exactly to something like this happening. So, I'm not going to say that the company wanted this fire to happen, but I won't call it accidental,” he said.

“Some of the infractions that the inspection department brought up pointed exactly to something like this happening..." said @gary_taje, retired underground miner and longtime international staff representative at United Mine Workers of America.

“I really hope that this is a bit of a wakeup call for that company to start looking after all the little things you should be looking at to prevent the ignition of anything.”

Stop-work order issued

A stop-work order was issued Sunday night by the province for all production work at the mine, Gary O’Toole, senior executive director for the province’s safety branch, said at a Zoom meeting with reporters.

“We won't rescind that order until we're satisfied that there's … compliance with all the safety rules,” he said. “Like all Nova Scotians, of course, we're concerned when we hear that there's a report of a fire in a mine, and so we are currently investigating the incident.”

The provincial government did not provide a timeline for the investigation but stressed that the site is closely monitored by the province, which is partly why there is a high volume of safety infractions.

“This is one of the most regulated and most visited work sites in Nova Scotia from a safety perspective,” said O’Toole. “And so, the corresponding number of orders and penalties should not be surprising to anyone, and it's really because we're paying attention to all the details.”

Province denies industrial approval appeal

Meanwhile, a national environmental group’s appeal calling for Donkin’s industrial approval to be overturned has been denied. In December, Donkin got the green light to operate the mine until the end of 2029 from Nova Scotia’s Environment and Climate Change Department.

The Sierra Club highlighted concerns around greenhouse gas emissions, a lack of monitoring, noise pollution, coal trucking and wetland loss. Noise from the ventilation fans at the Donkin mine has been impacting some residents' sleep and overall well-being for years.

The rejection letter from Nova Scotia Environment Minister Tim Halman says a study from Cape Breton University noise expert Sarah Barnes “does not definitively identify the mine as the source of the release of tonal noise components.”

Tynette Deveaux of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Atlantic campaign calls that a “slap” for community members, and says the rejection — paired with the slew of safety issues — is part of an overall lack of oversight at the Donkin mine.

“The word 'infraction' or 'compliance order’ really doesn't do justice to the kinds of things that are happening in the mine — that shouldn't be happening, that are endangering workers’ lives and endangering the local community,” she said.

“Those plumes of smoke (Sunday) night will have an impact for the local watershed, for wildlife, for residents.”