Another death at Vale’s Sudbury mines – Editorial (Northern Miner – February 6-12, 2012)

The Northern Miner, first published in 1915, during the Cobalt Silver Rush, is considered Canada’s leading authority on the mining industry.

The month of January closed out with Vale having temporarily halted all underground mining at its five nickel mines in Sudbury, Ont., following the death of a miner at the Coleman mine on Jan. 29.

Miner Stephen Perry, 47, was working on the 4,215-ft. level when he was struck by “what appears to be a displacement of material or rock from the development face in the main orebody,” commented Kelly Strong, Vale’s North Atlantic vice-president of mining and milling, in an early Jan. 30 news conference.

Perry was brought to surface where he was pronounced dead by medical personnel, said Strong, who extended his condolences to the miner’s family and friends. He had been with the company for 16 years. This is the fourth fatality in seven months at Vale’s Canadian operations, and the third death at the company’s Sudbury mines.

At presstime, the Brazilian mining giant had suspended work at the Coleman, Stobie, Creighton, Garson and Copper Cliff mines, sending almost 1,600 employees home with pay as it drafts a new safety plan. Still in operation are the surface production plants that will use stockpiled ore and ore from other Canadian operations.

Last October, miner Greg Leason, 51, was injured at Vale’s Thompson underground nickel mine Manitoba, after falling down a mine shaft while operating a scoop tram. He died nearly two weeks later at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre. Leason had worked for Vale for 23 years and was a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 6166.

Four months prior, in June, USW Local 6500 miners Jason Cheiner, 35, and Jordan Fram, 26, were killed at the Stobie mine, while working underground at the 3,000-ft. level. The two were engulfed by muck after they opened a gate and rock material overflowed into their work area.

The company just wrapped up an investigation of the June deaths, and is now looking into the latest fatality. The USW union, the local police and Ontario’s Ministry of Labour are also investigating.

In 2006, a worker at Stobie was killed while operating a scoop tram remotely from an underground platform, and was discovered beneath the drilling platform. And in December 2010, three miners were injured at the mine when a scoop tram freewheeled down a portion of a ramp and collided with a jeep.

Last February, Vale closed its No. 2 flash furnace in Sudbury after molten metal leaked out between the tapping block and the furnace.

Alerting us to this furnace story was a Vale worker who requested anonymity after stating that “people working there had to run for their lives,” and that “in the (many) years I’ve been here I’ve never known a situation like this where people have had to run for their lives and it’s happened twice now in a month.”

Vale, which is such a huge company that few events are big enough to be material, only put out a press release about the explosion and furnace shutdown after our enquiries.

Vale currently employs about 3,900 at its century-old Sudbury operations, which include the mines, a mill, a smelter and a refinery. In 2010, Vale announced it would invest US$3.4 billion to the end of 2015 at its Sudbury operations in a multi-pronged approach to rebuild and modernize assets, reduce sulphur emissions, extend the life of mines and find new ore sources.

The new, US$360-million Totten underground nickel mine under construction in Sudbury will be Vale’s first “new” nickel mine in the Sudbury camp in 40 years. Originally slated to be in production in 2011, the start-up date has been pushed back to 2013 in the face of a weaker nickel market and a trickier-than-expected refurbishing of an old shaft near the community of Worthington.

Of course, the wounds are still there in Sudbury from the bitter, near-year-long strike by unionized Vale employees that ended in late 2010, and proved to be the longest strike in the city’s history, as workers and management battled over bonuses and pensions. Vale had only acquired the Sudbury assets in 2006 through its controversial acquisition of Canadian mining icon Inco.

Globally, Vale has 119,000 employees — mostly at its vast iron ore operations in Brazil — plus 54,000 contract employees.

Last September, Vale’s Rio-de-Janeiro based CEO Murilo Ferreira sent a letter to employees imploring them to be more safety conscious after eight employees and contractors were killed in six accidents in the previous three months.

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