Official linked to U.S. mine disaster resigns from Cape Breton’s Donkin mine project

Click to play video: 'Questions raised about safety records of men opening N.S. coal mine'
Questions raised about safety records of men opening N.S. coal mine
WATCH: A Global News 16x9 investigation is raising questions about the safety records of two men who were set to reopen a coal mine in Donkin, N.S. Gil Shochat reports – Apr 18, 2016

A top official, helping to open the new Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton, has resigned from the project after questions were raised by media regarding his involvement in a 2010 U.S. mining disaster that killed 29 miners.

After months of investigating management behind the Donkin Project, 16×9 learned that former Performance Coal Company President Chris Blanchard was part of a team working to help set up the Donkin project.

Blanchard was the president of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia leading up to one of deadliest mining explosion in recent U.S. history.

The disaster and Blanchard’s questionable management at Upper Big Branch received attention across the U.S. But when interviewed by 16×9 in March, the Nova Scotia government did not know what Blanchard’s role was at Donkin and had limited knowledge of his history.

WATCH: 16×9 questions the Nova Scotia government on the Donkin Mine project and the safety record of the people behind it.
Click to play video: 'Official linked to U.S. mining disaster resigns from Cape Breton mine management team'
Official linked to U.S. mining disaster resigns from Cape Breton mine management team

“I don’t know what his role is whatsoever at Donkin mine at this point,” said Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Geoff MacLellan, “I have to trust that the system we have in place and the mechanism for ensuring that safety.”

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After the interview, 16×9 followed up for weeks asking for specifics about Blanchard’s role at the Donkin project. In an email to 16×9, the Nova Scotia government told us “when it was understood that Mr. Blanchard was expected to be directly involved with day to day operations” they immediately expressed concerns to the company. As a result, he is no longer “involved in the day to day operations.”

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Four weeks after 16×9 first brought concerns about Chris Blanchard’s safety record to the Nova Scotia government’s attention, Blanchard resigned and is no longer involved with the Donkin Mine.

Blanchard and his former employer did not respond to several requests for comment regarding his abrupt departure.

Blanchard and the Upper Big Branch explosion

Blanchard’s former boss, the CEO of Massey Energy Don Blankenship, was sentenced April 6, 2016 to one year in federal prison for conspiring to willfully violate mine health and safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine.

READ MORE: Donkin, N.S., coal mine set to reopen this summer

Blanchard cut a deal with West Virginia prosecutors and was given immunity to testify against his former boss.

In its decision, the court cited Blanchard’s testimony describing a culture of pushing production over safety at Upper Big Branch and an “understanding” that “it was more profitable to violate safety standards and pay the resulting fines than to reduce production.”

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Former Performance Coal President Chris Blanchard leaves a U.S. federal courthouse. Photo courtesy the Charleston Gazette-Mail caption

During his testimony, Blanchard denied breaking the law, but admitted his company was cited for hundreds of violations, most of which were preventable.

An independent report commissioned by the governor of West Virginia described one instance when a mine foreman at Upper Big Branch wanted to shut down the section of the mine for lack of air, but “Chris Blanchard called the dispatcher and told him to tell [the foreman that] if he didn’t get the section running in so many minutes he would be fired.”
BELOW: Independent investigation panel report on Upper Big Branch mine explosion
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“Chris Blanchard is the person who is most responsible for that blow-up because he continued operating that mine in an unsafe manner even though he had been warned repeatedly by mine safety and health inspectors,” said Jack Spadaro, a retired U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration official and long-time critic of the coal mining industry.

In spite of the Upper Big Branch investigation findings Blanchard was tasked with helping set up the Donkin Project.

Hiring Blanchard

Critics say Blanchard isn’t the only official at Donkin with a questionable record. Chris Cline, an American coal mining baron is the founder of Cline Group. Through his subsidiaries, Cline owns the mining rights at Donkin.

The province hired a consulting firm to assess the mine and found that the Cline Group “appears to be a reasonably good candidate for successfully developing, then safely and efficiently operating the proposed Donkin Project.”

But critics who looked at Cline’s safety record in the U.S. have major concerns. Cline has been criticized for his lack of mine safety and violations in one of his mines.

U.S. safety expert Spadaro questions Cline’s decision of hiring someone with Blanchard’s safety record.

“I think it just shows that Chris Cline has no regard for mine safety if he’s going to hire somebody who was one of the principal people managing a mine where an explosion occurred and killed 29 people.”

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Cline declined to be interviewed for the story.

Watch 16×9’s full investigation into the Donkin Mine project, “The Pit” this Saturday at 7 p.m.

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