Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton to open this summer amid safety concerns from critics

The Donkin coal mine is scheduled to open this summer in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia but questions surrounding the safety records of people running the mine remain unanswered by government officials overseeing the project.

16×9 raised serious concerns to both the Nova Scotia Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Labour regarding one former mine manager, Chris Blanchard, and the owner of the Donkin mine project, Chris Cline.

Chris Blanchard, was part of a team working to help set up the Donkin project but resigned in early April, four weeks after 16×9 first brought concerns about his safety record to the Nova Scotia government’s attention.

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

Before working for Cline’s company, Blanchard was the president of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia leading up to the deadliest mining explosion in recent US history. 29 men were killed in the 2010 tragedy, and the CEO, Don Blankenship, was found guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mine health and safety standards.

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Blanchard cut a deal and was never charged in relation to the Upper Big Branch explosion.  During the trial, Blanchard denied breaking the law, but admitted his company was cited for hundreds of violations, most of which were preventable.

The disaster and Blanchard’s questionable management at Upper Big Branch was widely covered in the US.   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.

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

Chris Blanchard walks out of a US courthouse. Photo courtesy the Charleston Gazette-Mail

Blanchard, who worked for one of the Cline Group entities linked to the Donkin mine, did not respond to several requests for comment regarding his abrupt departure.

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Nova Scotia Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, Kelly Regan, told 16×9 there “are a number of different departments that are involved in setting up the mine.”

When her department learned Blanchard “was going to be involved in the day-to-day management” of the mine the Ministry immediately expressed concerns.  She says the company was “responsive to those concerns” and Blanchard was removed from those “day-to-day” responsibilities. Blanchard eventually resigned from the company.

“I want to be very clear here there will be no mining done at Donkin unless it can be done safely.”

Nova Scotia government reviews Donkin Project

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 and, through his subsidiaries, Cline owns the mining rights at Donkin.

When asked about Cline’s environmental and safety record Labour Minister Kelly Regan had “no knowledge of Mr. Cline” and was “not sure that would be something that government would be looking at” as the Labour Ministry’s focus would be on the people “involved in the day to day operations of the mine”.

However, the province did hire a consulting firm to look at Cline’s background and some of his US operations.  16×9 obtained an exclusive copy of that report through a freedom of information request.   The report found Cline “appeared to be a reasonable and prudent operator with a reasonably good probability of developing the Donkin Project into a safe and economical mine.”

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But critics who looked at Cline’s safety record in the US have major concerns.

Davitt McAteer, once the top mining inspector with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), called the government commissioned report “a cursory look,” that lacked an understanding of US laws and violations.

In an on camera interview, Minister Regan promised to give 16×9 a list of all the company managers at Donkin.  When 16×9 followed up, her department refused to give us that list and said it would “not provide private company information.”

Cline’s US mines

In 1992, the Westray disaster in Nova Scotia killed 26 miners.   It was an explosion that shook the province and revealed the deadly risks of pushing production over safety.

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With the Westray tragedy in mind, critics are looking at Cline and his Canadian coal play, very cautiously.

“Mr. Cline has a mix of mines,” said Ellen Smith, an award-winning journalist and managing editor of Mine Safety & Health News.  “But what’s troubling is he has one in particular that is incredibly unsafe.”

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

16×9 hired Smith to look at the safety of many of the mines owned by Foresight, the company Cline owned until 2015.

Smith has spent almost 30 years covering coal mine safety.  She ordered and analyzed dozens of government violation reports and concluded Cline’s MC#1 mine in Franklin County, Illinois, was not safe.  Some of the mine’s past violations made her worry. She saw government citations for coal dust accumulations, ventilation problems and even fatalities. For Smith, this did not point to a culture of safety.

“You don’t have your firefighting equipment in place, and you don’t have your ventilation, and you’ve got float coal dust, you’re gonna have a mine disaster. It’s the perfect storm.”

Former MSHA official McAteer also had concerns, “I review a mine …[and] those things pop up, it causes me great concern.  Because, you know, those are the kinds of violations that trigger an explosion and can trigger the large loss of life…it gives me pause.”
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The U.S. government fined that mine over $1.6 million in one year alone. The company is contesting some of those fines but for Smith, these violations translated into red flags everywhere.

“You’re not gonna catch me in that mine. Couldn’t pay me enough. I wouldn’t go in that mine,” Smith said.

For Smith, the government needs to take another hard look at the Donkin project to ensure it will not have the same violations that Cline had at MC#1 because “if things go wrong, you’re going to have another Westray.”

The re-birth of coal on Cape Breton 

It’s been over two decades since the Westray disaster and people at the northern tip of Cape Breton have long assumed that coal mining was a thing of the past.

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“A lot of memories this place, big time memories. It’s all good memories though,” Gordie Peckham said as he walked with us through a field covered by long yellowed-grass permanently bent from the wind coming off the ocean.

Gordie Peckham, a Nova Scotian coal miner, applied for work at the new Donkin coal project. 16x9

Peckham worked thousands of feet under this ground decades ago. He was a coal miner for 25 years, back when coal was the heart that pumped Cape Breton’s economy.

But the Donkin Mine will bring jobs back to a place that used to be known as Canada’s industrial heartland.

It’s the first coal mining project to come here in almost a generation.

“I loved it. It was an everyday thing for me,” Peckham said. “I had an uncle that spoke the words for me and he got me on there. I went for my interview and medical and … then I’m a coal miner.”

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But as new economic realities swept through this part of Cape Breton, Peckham lost his job. The last coal mine in Nova Scotia closed in 2001 and like a lot of the other men, Peckham started commuting to Alberta for work in the oil fields.

“We are craving for jobs in Cape Breton, craving for it, for something big to happen. This is something big, this Donkin mine” said Peckham.

The Donkin project is promising an estimated 120 jobs just down the road from Peckham’s home.   According to Statistics Canada, unemployment rates here in Cape Breton are at a staggering 19 per cent, compared to seven per cent for the rest of Canada.

But even with the promises of jobs and prosperity, Peckham knows safety is first and that needs to be the focus.

“I just hope down the road that, like I said, nothing happens out there. I hope it’s ran properly for safety reasons. I hope it’s ran properly.”

Watch 16×9’s story “The Pit” Saturday Apr. 23, 2016 at 7pm


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