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Coroner's Inquest Demanded in Sullivan Mine Deaths

Family, union and MLA reject government report.

Tom Sandborn 14 Nov

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee with a special focus on health care and labour issues.

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Shawn Currier and Kim Weitzel

Between May 15 and 17 this year, four workers died inside a dark, airless shed on the grounds of Teck Cominco's decommissioned Sullivan Mine near Cranbrook in the East Kootenays. Now the government report on this tragedy is at the centre of a storm of controversy. Family members, the MLA for the region, and the union that represented workers at Sullivan when the lead/zinc/silver mine was open are calling for a coroner's inquest. They say there is more to know about the facts, and who is responsible.

Doug Erickson, an environmental contractor working for Pryzm Environmental, and Bob Newcombe, a Teck Cominco employee, were the first to succumb to an oxygen-depleted atmosphere inside the tiny water-monitoring structure build over a waste rock dump. B.C. Ambulance paramedics Kim Weitzel and Shawn Currier died trying to rescue Erickson and Newcombe.

Erickson died working alone and unsupervised on May 15. No efforts were made to find him until the morning of May 17, when Newcombe, alerted by a call from Erickson's wife, and again working alone, tried to determine what had become of the environmental consultant. Newcombe, too, fell victim to the de-oxygenated air in the water-monitoring shed. Weitzel and Currier, called to the mine site later that morning, died trying to rescue the first two victims.

'Not satisfied with this report'

A report from B.C.'s Chief Inspector of Mines Fred Hermann released Oct. 30 calls the events leading to the tragic deaths "unprecedented" and says "the process that led to the oxygen-depleted atmosphere has not, to our knowledge, occurred anywhere else in the world." Harmann's report says:

"The accident was caused by the accumulation of oxygen-deprived atmosphere in the shed (and in particular in the sub-level excavation in the shed). This air mixture was transported through a drainage pipe feeding into the shed from the covered ditch surrounding the toe of the dump. This ditch had been designed and constructed to direct water flowing through the dump into a collection system for treatment."

Family members of the fallen workers are not satisfied with this report, and two of the survivors told The Tyee that they support a recent call from NDP Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald for a full and public coroner's inquest.

Macdonald is critical of the mine inspector's report because, he says, it doesn't call for penalties against Teck Cominco for the company's failure to follow provisions of the Mine Act's Health, Safety and Reclamation Code. Macdonald pointed out that the inspector's report suggested Teck Cominco had not been recording when workers entered and left the mine, or guaranteeing that staff working alone be checked at least once every two and a half hours, as required by provincial regulations.

"I was appalled to hear that even though Teck Cominco is in clear violation of existing regulations, no penalties are being assigned," Macdonald told The Tyee.

Although the provincial coroner is expected to issue a report on the Sullivan Mine deaths, Macdonald says that he did not expect the report process would be suitably comprehensive. "A coroner's inquest is required," he said.

Lack of training claimed

Surviving family members are also calling on the B.C. chief coroner to act.

"I won't have a good night's sleep until there's an inquest," George Weitzel, paramedic Kim Weitzel's husband told The Tyee. "There are so many unanswered questions, so many errors in this report. We want someone to take responsibility. That's why we need a coroner's inquest. If there had been a sign-in, sign-out policy, Doug Erickson wouldn't have laid at the bottom of that pit for two days. And somebody who went in and went looking for him might have had a different level of training and might have looked at that shaft a little differently and recognized the hazards."

The Hermann report suggests that "lack of basic hazard recognition training and experience contributed to the loss of Shawn Currier." Although the mine inspector's report suggests Teck Cominco and other B.C. mines in future should implement the safety procedures mandated by the Mine Act and clearly not in place at Sullivan in May, it does not assign any blame in the deaths to the mining company for apparently failing to obey the regulations before the tragedy.

Bob Currier's son Shawn was the last one to die at the Sullivan Mine last May. He, too, is eager to see a full coroner's inquest into the circumstances surrounding the four deaths.

Doug Erickson shouldn't have been working alone on that job," he told The Tyee. "In my opinion," said Currier, who has worked in underground construction, mining and oil and gas drilling operations and is familiar with industrial safety procedures, "if he was left alone, he should have had radio contact and a hand-held air monitor. The space where these people died was a 'confined space' under every act I know about, but Fred Hermann refused to classify it as a confined space. The inspector's report is not complete. We need public support for a coroner's inquest. I'm asking people to rally and speak to their MLAs on this. The families want some truth. The companies should be held responsible.

Report 'speaks for itself'

David Parker, who speaks for Teck Cominco, said in a voicemail left after hours for a Tyee reporter that his company would co-operate fully if an inquest were held. Parker did not respond before this story went to press to requests for comment about the indication in the mine inspector's report that his company had not been following safety regulations at the Sullivan Mine.

Teck Cominco is one of B.C.'s largest and most influential mining companies and the largest single donor to B.C. Liberal campaigns over the last decade, with total donations to the governing party of more than $750,000.

Several requests for comment from Bill Bennett, the B.C. minister of state for mines, went unanswered as this story went to press. On Oct. 30, Minister of State Bennett said in a government press release:

"I accept the chief inspector of mines report and its findings and support his recommendations to ensure the safety of workers and first responders at mine sites."

Graham Curry, director of communication, Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, refused in a recent telephone interview to comment on suggestions that the mining company had failed to obey Mine Act safety regulations that might have saved the lives of the four workers lost at the Sullivan Mine.

"The chief inspector's report speaks for itself," he said.

Curry did confirm that the Sullivan Mine report would be the last one issued by Fred Hermann, who is leaving the ministry to take a job in the private sector.

The union that represented miners at the Sullivan Mine until Teck Cominco shut it down has joined in the call for a coroner's inquest. In a statement issued Nov. 7, Steve Hunt, United Steelworkers district director (and, some years ago, one of the contributing authors of the Mine Act's Health, Safety and Reclamation Code) said that Hermann's report seems to gloss over some of the basic tenets of mine safety.

"Had regulations been followed and enforced, this disaster would not have happened. There will be no closure for the community or the families of the victims of this tragedy without a coroner's inquest."

'Uncommonly caring'

Hunt told the Tyee that the four victims at the Sullivan Mine died in a very confined space that was not designed for human occupation, and echoed the families of the lost workers in calling for an inquest.

One of the questions George Weitzel wants a coroner's inquest to look into is whether the layer of clay and glacial till Teck Cominco spread over the waste rock dump beneath the shed in October of 2005 created an air-tight seal that promoted the creation of the de-oxygenated air that killed his wife and three others.

"Teck Cominco, in our opinion," Weitzel told The Tyee, "designed and built the shed and the seal. They didn't do their due diligence on either the shed or the seal."

While he waits for a coroner's inquest, George Weitzel remembers his wife Kim as "an uncommonly caring person, always helping others."

"The day before she died," he told The Tyee, "Kim came home just glowing. She told me she'd had an 'awesome' day. She'd picked up a guy in full cardiac arrest and treated him for the 20-minute drive to the hospital, and saved his life. She said to me, 'I remember now why I do this job.'"

The next day, Kim Weitzel died doing the job she loved. Her grieving husband and the family members of the other three who died in the dark in Teck Cominco's water sampling shed are still waiting for the inquest they hope will answer their many unanswered questions.

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