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Sullivan Mine Deaths: Questions Haunt

Families seek answers in coroner's inquest.

Francis Plourde 9 Jul

Emily Bodenberg and Ana-Cristina Campos contributed reporting to this article. Francis Plourde is on staff at The Tyee.

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Shawn Currier and Kim Weitzel.

[Editor's note: Tyee reporter Francis Plourde will be reporting this week from Kimberley, B.C., where an inquest into four deaths at the nearby Sullivan Mine gets underway today.]

Family and co-workers of four people who died in an underground shed at the decommissioned Sullivan Mine site hope to finally get some answers this week as an inquest into the deaths begins in Kimberley, B.C.

Bob Newcombe, Kim Weitzel and Shawn Currier all died trying to rescue environmental contractor Doug Erickson from a water sampling shed at the mine in May 2006. A mine inspector's report released last October found the accident to be "unprecedented" and largely unpreventable. But the report did not satisfy many close to the victims.

Among the questions the families hope to see answered this week are:

An airless pit

There is some dispute as to the exact chain of events that led to the deaths. But according to the report by then–B.C. chief mine inspector Fred Herman, what happened was this:

On Monday May 15, 2006, Doug Erickson, an employee of Pryzm Environmental, entered a six-by-six foot shed at Teck Cominco's decommissioned Sullivan Mine. The shed was built above a water collection sump, a pit where drainage water from the mine pooled and could be collected for sampling. Unbeknownst to Erickson, low oxygen air had been seeping into the sump from a drainage pipe that fed into the shed. So low was the share of oxygen oozing in, tests would later determine, that just two breathes could knock a man out.

When Erickson was reported missing on May 17, Bob Newcombe, a contractor working for Teck Cominco, was sent to look for him. Newcombe eventually spotted Erickson's truck outside the shed, called 911 and David Van Dieren, a fellow Cominco employee, and headed inside. Newcombe then apparently went down into the sump where he too succumbed to the low oxygen air.

What happened next though is a matter of some dispute. Large chunks of the public report dealing with what happened after Newcombe entered the shed have been blacked out. What we do know is that Van Dieren arrived escorting an ambulance not long afterwards. We also know that Van Dieren entered the shed with the first ambulance attendant, Kim Weitzel, and that she too went down into the sump. After that happened, Van Dieren fetched the second attendant, Shawn Currier, who then followed his partner down into the oxygen starved pit. Currier, Weitzel, Newcombe and Erickson, the report later determined, all died from exposure to the oxygen depleted air.

'Pain in his eyes'

George Weitzel is still haunted by the accident. He wonders whether Van Dieren might have done more to save his wife, Kim. Van Dieren and Weitzel met just days after the accident when Van Dieren approached Weitzel at a reception following his wife's funeral. "He just had so much pain in his eyes," Weitzel said. "He said, 'I was there when it happened.'"

"He could not have been more than two or three feet away from her," Weitzel added. "He stood over her as she was, in his words, scrambling to get back on the platform [above the sump]."

In an interview, Van Dieren confirmed that he spoke Weitzel, as well as other family members, but he would not elaborate on what he told them.

The current B.C. chief inspector for mining, Ricky Berdusco, told The Tyee that Van Dieren changed his version of events several times. But nothing he said at any point led them to believe he could or could not have done more to save Kim Weitzel's life. "[The] paramedic at that stage had already been exposed to this atmosphere beyond a point of being able to be rescued," said Berdusco.

Van Dieren is expected to testify at the inquiry.

Lethal design?

The disputed chain of events is, however, just one of many mysteries the families hope to see solved this week. For Penny Newcombe, Bob Newcombe's wife, questions about the design of the shed remain are paramount.

Newcombe thinks sampling sheds built at the mine were poorly designed and didn't meet code. She says she pressed Ministry of Mines and Teck Cominco officials on the topic at a meeting in October. But, according to Newcombe, she was told not to probe too deeply.

"I was told that I should stop investigating because Bob did build it. ... To me it felt like, be careful about what you're asking," she said. "My response for that was 'Bob may have built it, but Bob wasn't responsible for that, he wasn't an engineer.'"

David Parker, a spokesman for Teck Cominco would not comment on what Newcombe said she was told. "I can't confirm who built the water shed," he said. "I don't know the answer. And I am not aware of what Bob's qualifications would have been."

Tom Sandborn reported in detail in January on potential design flaws in the underground sump below the shed that may have contributed to the accident.

John Meech, a professor of mine engineering at the University of British Columbia, also believes that work done to a dump on the site near the shed in 2005 was a contributing factor. A layer of till cover was laid to seal the dump from rain and snow, to keep the water from being contaminated. But in the process, the toe of the dump was extended closer to the shed. The material used to extend the dump covered the drainage ditch that collected seepage and directed it to the sampling shed, Meech said. Once covered, the ditch created a direct conduit between the shed and the “bad” air in the dump. *

"The mistake that was made was not to recognize that when they covered the drainage ditch, they created a confined space in the shed," he added. "It virtually made it very, very high risk for anyone entering."

However, Meech pointed out, the “bad” air only flowed into the shed when temperatures rose above 10 C, which explains why people who entered the shed the week before the accident escaped unscathed.

Neither the construction of the shed nor the changes added later figured prominently in the official report, issued five months after the accident. Berdusco, the current chief mine inspector, said that the shed "is now recognized as a place where hazardous atmosphere could enter. Prior to that ... there was no indication that this could or would occur."

Who was in charge?

Steve Hunt is the district director for the United Steelworkers of America, the union that represents the majority of mine workers in B.C. Hunt thinks lax enforcement of safety rules helped create the conditions that led to the accident. But while the mine inspector's report acknowledged that rules were broken, Teck Cominco was not blamed or punished.

"There was not anything in the report that showed any type of responsibility chain between the employer and the contractor," Hunt said in an interview.

Under the Mine Safety Act, updated in 2002, all mines, active or decommissioned, must have a mine manager responsible for every person leaving or entering the site. The manager must also establish and maintain a joint management-worker Occupation Health & Safety Committee on mines where 20 people or more work regularly. The Sullivan Mine, however, was hiring many contractors for the decommissioning. It is not clear what training they received.

Berdusco said the company was not penalized because the investigation determined that the broken rules had no effect on the outcome of the incident. "That is why they were not charged ... or the infractions weren't pursued." He also added that safety rules are sometimes viewed as being open to interpretation on decommissioned sites. "They're probably not as rigidly enforced in decommissioned mines as they would be in active mines," he said. "It probably was a problem in this case."

David Parker, Teck Cominco's spokesperson, said mine managers believed they were aware of the safety risks that exist at non-active sites. They weren't, however, following the same procedures they would for an active mine. "It is a closed mine site and the procedures we were following were the ones we believed made sense under the circumstances," he said.

For Hunt, the fact the mine was decommissioned should not have changed anything. "Whether it's in operation or not, it's still defined as a mine," he said. "And there are requirements for this company to make sure that those people know what they are doing.

"It's painful to think about how four people go to work and don't come home because safety rules were not enforced."

New rules, but are they enforced?

After the accident, the Ministry of Mines instated a new stricter set of mine safety regulations in B.C. For one, sampling sheds like the one in Kimberley must now be locked with single-key access and a sign warning of the dangers of oxygen-depletion.

Parker says Teck Cominco has taken the new regulations to heart. Fences now enclose the mine site and access is strictly regulated. Employees have to sign in and sign out every time they enter or leave. They also have to report regularly to make sure they are safe.

However, even with the new rules, there is no guarantee that other mines will follow them. Since 2002, the provincial mining inspector's budget has been trimmed by 38 per cent.

"Increasingly there are not enough mining inspectors," said Joan Kuyek from MiningWatch Canada, a mining industry watchdog. Nor are there "enough opportunities for workers to protect themselves," she added, "and often because workers are working alone they don't have the kind of moral support they need to push for their rights."

For the families, union officials and others wrapped up in the Sullivan Mine disaster, that is perhaps the most anticipated question in the coming weeks: not just how and why their loved ones died, but how sure the province is that it won't happen again.

'All we're looking for...'

For George Weitzel, the last year has been a horror. Without the whole truth about his wife's death, he fears he won't have peace. "I want to be able to say to my wife that we got the truth out. That's the motive for me. That's what we're all looking for ... the truth, pure and simple."

*Correction: This paragraph was corrected on June 11.

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