Inquiry into mining safety long overdue – by Brian MacLeod (Sudbury Star – September 19, 2013)

The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.

“Something’s wrong,” Sudbury Star mining reporter Carol Mulligan said upon returning from a Vale Canada press conference in January 2012 called to explain the deaths of two miners 3,000 feet underground the previous June. “We’re not getting the whole story.”

On June 8, 2011, Jason Chenier, 35, a father of two young children, and Jordan Fram, 26, were crushed under 350 tonnes of wet, broken ore, known as muck, that had become stuck in a tunnel known as an ore pass.

The nature of the press conference — reporters were allowed to look at information presented, but were not given copies — and the demeanour of the presenters, was odd. Reporters in Sudbury are accustomed to procedures in mining deaths. The report made 30 recommendations to improve safety and the company was acting on them, officials said.

Yet Mulligan’s instincts were right. On Monday, Vale Canada pleaded guilty to three charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The company was fined $350,000 on each charge, plus a 25% surcharge. It was, Crown attorney Wes Wilson said, the largest ever fine levied under the act for health and safety issues. Six other charges were dropped, as were charges against a mine official.

A month after Vale’s press conference, the United Steelworkers in Sudbury released a report that contained 165 recommendations, and it shed more light into what happened. The broken rock had become clogged in the ore pass. Chenier, a supervisor with 11 years experience, was thought to have opened a gate to look at the hang-up of muck to prepare to blast it loose when the ore collapsed through the opening. The ore was excessively wet, perhaps loosening the jam. In the days before his death, Chenier had sent e-mails to the company warning about excessive water in the levels at the top of the ore pass. He had also placed guardrails to block access to the upper area to prevent blasting because of excessive water. All three times, those guardrails were removed by the company.

Just eight months later, Stephen Perry, 47, died after rock fell from an upper area where he was working at the 4,215-foot level at Coleman Mine in Sudbury.

A growing chorus of voices throughout Northern Ontario have joined the Steelworkers in calling for an inquiry into mining practices. Since 2007, there have been 11 mining deaths in the province, eight in one 12-month period ending in May 2012. The families of Chenier, Fram and Perry have joined that chorus, as have NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Sudbury Progressive Conservative candidate Paula Peroni, Greater Sudbury council, and a local undertaker, Gerry Lougheed Jr. — a well-known voice in the community.

Yet two successive labour ministers — Linda Jeffrey and now Yasir Naqvi — have resisted. Naqvi appears to be favouring a review of mining practices, but there is no template to assess its effectiveness. It is evident in watching the inquiry into the Algo Centre Mall collapse in Elliot Lake that killed two people in June 2012 that what we take for granted — mall construction and maintenance — can go very wrong.

Underground mining is a lot more complicated. An inquiry can compel mining officials to testify and to supply documents in an open forum under the light of public scrutiny. We do not know if a review will contain such a measure. Mining officials argue it is still one of the safest industries in Canada. That’s what’s troubling. Vale Canada is one of the safest mining companies in the world. One of its mines was chosen the safest in Ontario six years in a row.

Yet people keep dying in constricted, unforgiving, darkened environments.

For the original version of this article, click here: