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$100 Device Could Have Saved Sullivan Mine Victims

Mining safety regs out of date, inquest told.

By Francis Plourde 13 Jul 2007 |

Frances Plourde is on staff of The Tyee and covering the Sullivan Mine inquest from Kimberley.

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Shawn Currier and Kim Weitzel.

If workers at the Sullivan Mine in Kimberly had been equipped with a $100 device commonly used in the oil industry, four people might still be alive, a coroner's inquest has heard. The air monitor wasn't required gear because safety regulations for mine workers are out of synch with those of other hazardous fields of work, an expert witness testified.

As the coroner's inquest into the Sullivan Mine deaths resumed its fourth day of hearings, the families of the four victims made a joint statement to say that they were generally satisfied with the recommendations made from several experts.

They are now waiting to see those recommendations put into effect. Four hundred and twenty-one days after losing his wife, Kim, George Weitzel said progress is too slow. "We're already marching towards the next tragedy," he said.

Chain of events described

The first two days of the inquest provided more information on the rescue efforts that lead to the death of four people at the mine in Kimberley on May 17, 2006.

The course of events started on May 15, 2006, when Teck Cominco contractor Doug Erickson went to take samples in a small water shed within the mine site. He was found two days later by Teck Cominco employee Bob Newcombe. Newcombe thought Erickson had drowned and didn't realize the water shed contained deadly air.

Newcombe called 911, saying Erickson was in a "confined area." He then entered the shed and succumbed too.

Before Newcombe entered the shed, he called contract employee David Van Dieren to ask him to guide the paramedics to the site. Guided by Van Dieren, paramedic Kim Weitzel then went into the shed and began to go down a ladder. She paused, asked, "Oh my it gas?" and fell and died.

According to Van Dieren's version, Shawn Currier then rushed inside the building to help his partner, and died as well.

The 911 conversations revealed growing tension during subsequent calls, as Van Dieren called for a rescue team.

The reports made after the accident showed that some rules under the Mines Act, like a sign-in and sign-out procedure, hadn't been implemented. But these elements weren't referred as making a significant difference. The incident was rather presented as "unforeseeable" by Teck Cominco and the ministry.

Mining safety rules 'from a different era'

But the implementation of WorkSafeBC rules rather than the Mining Act could have saved four lives, testified confined space expert Marshall Denhoff at the inquest on Wednesday. He told the jury the mining legislation in B.C. was "from a different era."

Under current legislation, protection of mine workers falls under the Mines Act. Yet rescuers -- and all other industries in B.C. -- fall under the jurisdiction of WorkSafeBC, which is tougher than the Mines Act.

Under WorkSafeBC standards, the expert told the five-person jury, in case of any doubt regarding possible hazards, the workers are asked not to take risks.

Denhoff said WorkSafeBC regulations provided a higher level of protection for workers. He suggested that a simple air monitor, the size of a cell phone, could prevent an accident like the Sullivan Mine tragedy.

The air tester, costing around $100, is commonly used in the oil industry in Alberta, he said. The electronic device was only one example showing how workers on site weren't prepared for hazards associated with confined spaces.

WorkSafeBC defines a confined space as a space partially or totally enclosed, that is not designed for human occupancy, large enough for a person to perform work, and with restricted entrance and exit.

The Mines Act, on the other hand, defines it as a tank, vessel, underground vault not designed for human occupancy. There's been controversy about the shed falling into the definition or not, whereas there was no possible misunderstanding under WorkSafeBC.

Had it been the case, workers would have been trained in consequence and made aware of the hazards associated with the shed.

On that aspect, Denhoff echoed what NDP MLA Chuck Puchmayr had pushed for since April. Puchmayr asked for a "modernization" of safety standards regarding confined spaces. Had the mine's safety code been harmonized with WorksafeBC code, he said, four lives might have been saved.

Outside the community centre, Puchmayr reminded that the regulation was still too lax. He wished B.C. could get "the highest standards available when dealing with confined spaces."

Dozens of recommendations

Denhoff's testimonial was one of many to provide recommendations to ensure such a tragic accident won't happen again.

Bob Alexander, from the B.C. Ambulance Service, testified on Thursday. The investigation he made led to 42 recommendations.

The scope of his recommendations ranges from refining communication between dispatchers to adjusting shift schedules. It has been reported that Kim Weitzel had been on call for nine consecutive shifts when the accident happened. Most of the recommendations are in the progress of being implemented, included several measures put in place at the Kamloops dispatch centre.

The five-person jury also heard about measures Teck Cominco had implemented since the accident. "We do whatever we think is appropriate to ensure the security on our site," Teck Cominco spokesperson David Parker told the media outside the Centennial Hall.

Parker added his company was complying with the regulations for mines at the time of the accident. In May 2006, only 25 people were working on the site, reported mine manager Bruce Dawson. According to him, only three of them were Teck Cominco employees. The others were contractors.

This situation, the inquest was told, may have caused safety procedures to suffer among the three employees, who were required to have a meeting a month to discuss the safety issue. Bob Newcombe was also in charge of conveying safety information to contractors.

Families want province-wide shift

Bruce Dawson, the mine manager, admitted the measures taken by Teck Cominco after the accident to follow the report from the chief inspector of mining in B.C., Fred Herman, had only been implemented on this specific mine site and not necessarily on other sites.

The statement didn't satisfy the families, who want the recommendations to be applied strictly and province wide. "We want the recommendations to be implemented province wide, and even Canada wide," said Bob Currier, Shawn's father.

While the many recommendations are welcomed, their implementation concerns the families. "The recommendations are fine but they're nothing if they're not implemented," George Weitzel told the media after the hearings.

"This might be a life-long quest," added Currier, determined, he says, along with members of the other families, to see positive change result from the deaths of their loved ones.

Family members also were critical that Teck Cominco has not been fined for not keeping its logbook up-to-date.

If someone in the company had been monitoring the log book, Doug Erickson wouldn't have been missing for two days before being rescued, they claim.

"That's an outrage. What incentive is there for the mining industry in B.C. to change their practice?" asked Weitzel.

The inquest is scheduled to resume tomorrow, a week earlier than expected.

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