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Safety record of Donkin Mine operator causes concerns

KJIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – The safety record of the American owner of the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton is far from stellar.  

An online database search reveals that in the last four years four underground coal mines owned and operated by coal magnate Chris Cline in Illinois were fined $6 million for safety-related infractions. Three miners died in separate incidents.

That’s just Illinois. Cline owns mines in other states as well.

“Those are huge fines. That’s not just the cost of doing business. It’s the cost of doing business when you run an unsafe operation,” says Bobby Burchell, the Canadian representative for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

This is where a union can make a world of difference for the mine, which is set to reopen sometime this year, Burchell believes.

“Those violations are only picked up when the mine inspector is visiting the mine. So what’s going on when there is no inspector there, and there is no union to stand up for the miners?

“For our union safety is a big priority. We train our guys at the Mining Academy in West Virginia,  we send members of our safety committees there every year,” Burchell says. “We take safety very seriously.”

“When there is no union there and a worker speaks up, I would hope that the company would listen, but they answer to their shareholders. They have to make money, and sometimes they sidestep these issues,” Burchell says.

The provincial Department of Labour and Advanced Education is confident that the new mine, which will extend below the seabed, will be safe.

“In the years since Westray, Nova Scotia has made significant changes to our legislation to ensure the people running mining operations in the province are held to a very high standard,” writes Andrew Preeper, spokesperson for the Department of Labour and Advanced Education.

The province is even bringing in outside expertise to ensure the mine will be safe, Preeper writes.

However, regulations are one thing, but making it so on the ground is a different story, Burchell argues.

Burchell’s assertion that a unionized mine is a safer mine appears to be backed up by science.

A 2013  peer-reviewed analysis of decades of data established that unionized mines experience a 13-30% drop in traumatic injuries and a 28-83% drop in fatalities when compared to non-union shops.

It only makes sense, says Burchell.

“Mining accidents do happen, it’s part of the job,” he says.  “But there is much that can be avoided. When the workers are protected by a union then they can speak their mind when they are working in unsafe conditions. They have somebody there who can protect them.”

Non-unionized workers are vulnerable to retribution by the company, says Burchell. Typically they’re not local, and move here with their families. It’s not like there is any other work for them if they were to lose their job.

It’s no secret that Chris Cline, the owner of Donkin’s Kameron Collieries, is no fan of unions. None of his mines in the States are unionized.

“We have already heard stories that there is intimidation happening during job interviews,” says Burchell. “Unfortunately people will not come forward, because they don’t want to jeopardize their chance to be employed.”  

Burchell went to one of the community information meetings put on by Kameron Collieries to introduce himself to the new management team.

The reception was rather cool, he says.

Local politicians are eager to see the estimated 120 new jobs materialize, and shrug off any safety concerns.

“It’s very safe, very protective, and very mechanical,” local Liberal MLA and Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Geoff MacLellan assures a CBC reporter about the Donkin mine. “I can vouch for that,” MacLellan adds for emphasis.

MacLellan doesn’t explain what evidence that assurance is based on, and didn’t respond to our questions by the time of publication.  

“Politicians are trying to provide employment, and I understand that,  but they shouldn’t promote the company as a safe and responsible employer if they don’t have the research to back it up,” counters Burchell.

“I definitely wouldn’t work in an underground coal mine without union protection, and I am not just saying that because I am union rep. I say that as an ex coal miner. I used to work underground.”

This is why UMWA is not giving up on its efforts to make the Donkin mine a union mine.

“We’re not out there as a union to make their life miserable. We just want to make sure that it’s a safe operation.

“We are getting ready to do an organizing drive, and the final say will be with the workers here,” says Burchell.