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Jury: Fix Mine Safety Regs

Mining minister takes Sullivan inquest advice 'seriously.'

Francis Plourde 16 Jul

Francis Plourde, on staff at The Tyee, reported from Kimberley, B.C., covering the Sullivan Mine inquest.

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Two of four victims: Shawn Currier and Kim Weitzel.

The safety regulations in the Mines Act need an update. That's the conclusion the jury at the coroner's inquest into the Sullivan Mine accident reached on Friday.

After a week of testimony from 25 different witnesses, the five-person panel made 16 recommendations to the B.C. Ambulance Service, Teck Cominco and the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum resources.

The most important recommendations were aimed at the ministry.

The jury asked the ministry "to amend the Mines Act regulations to meet or exceed the WCB standards with regards to confined space provisions in the Occupational Health and Safety regulations."

As The Tyee reported last week, the inquest learned on Wednesday that the safety regulations for mines were more lax than the rules of WorkSafeBC, applied to every other workplace in the province.

Had the regulation from WCB been implemented on the mine site, the shed would have been defined as a confined space, an expert testified on Wednesday. Signs would have also warned of possible dangers.

The panel also asked the ministry to review the effectiveness of its enforcement strategy. It suggested that the ministry establish a minimum number of site visits per mine per year to make sure the companies implement the regulations.

They recommended the government increase the penalty provisions to "reflect the seriousness of non-compliance."

At the time of the accident, sign-in and sign-out procedures weren't strictly respected. People working on site were conducting work by themselves without reporting regularly either.

Despite the breaches of regulations, the company wasn't fined. This situation angered the families, who wanted the regulations to be taken seriously.

Minister Krueger: 'More inspectors'

When asked about the recommendation to establish a minimum number of visits per mine per year, Minister of Mining Kevin Krueger did not specifically comment on the recommendation, but announced the ministry was hiring new inspectors. "Because of the increased development of mining in the province, we're in the process of hiring more inspectors," he told The Tyee.

Minister Krueger could not cite the specific number of inspectors being hired. He refused to comment specifically on future penalties for companies not respecting the regulations. "We'll be taking a hard look at the regulations," he said.

The jury made four other recommendations to the government:

BCAS: more training

Most of the recommendations from the jury applied to the B.C. Ambulance Service (BCAS). They found that the paramedics weren't prepared to provide help on an abandoned mine site and therefore suggested to BCAS that dispatch centres have access to a mine rescue phone number 24 hours a day.

They also advised the ambulance service to purchase one oxygen sensor per ambulance. The electronic device should be worn by the senior person at all times while on shift. An appropriate training about the use of the sensor should also be considered.

Other recommendations to BCAS include:

An update on the implementation of the recommendations should also be provided to the families, the jury decided.

The suggestions add to previous proposals made by Chief Inspector of Mines Fred Hermann and the B.C. Ambulance Service's investigation committee. About 50 per cent of the 44 recommendations made following the accident have already been completed, said Betty Nicholson, acting communication director at the Emergency Health Services Commission.

While some proposals were easy to implement, others, like developing training to ensure paramedics won't rush into dangerous situations to help others, require more time, she told The Tyee. "We're still working on and absolutely committed to the 42 recommendations."

Nicholson said some of the new suggestions would be easily done. A senior staff meeting is planned this week to go over the recommendations. "We're very serious at getting the review in place immediately," she added.

BCAS is still trying to implement the advice from the Fitch report, released in 2005, which found problems at the Kamloops dispatch centre. The report recommended that the staffing levels be increased and an update of the technologies used in the dispatch centre.

"We're into the second year of a three-year process. We've already had five additional full-time positions," said Nicholson.

Contractors need safety ed

Teck Cominco was advised by the jury to "take responsibility for safety training of all contractors on their sites."

At the time of the accident, there were three Teck Cominco employees and 22 contracted employees, a witness told the coroner. Safety information was handed to people working for the firm, but Teck Cominco didn't provide any specific training. The contractors were responsible for their own employees on site, mine manager Bruce Dawson told the jury.

The Vancouver-based company was also asked to continue to support a technical panel created after the accident. The panel is trying to develop an understanding of mining waste dump respiration.

Dr. Ron Nicholson, an independent expert from EcoMetrix Incorporated, confirmed on Friday that the event was unprecedented in the mining industry.

In the Summer of 2005, the company covered the waste rock dump surface with glacial till rich in clay to protect from the rain and to contaminate surrounding water at Sullivan Mine. The initiative, commonly used in the industry, stopped the circulation of the air to the outside.

The drain established to collect water within the rock stockpile inadvertently allowed the gas to flow again. It happened that the depleted oxygen was released in the sampling station.

In retrospect, the expert testified that the conditions existed to create a deadly situation. "It had to happen sooner or later, but why that day? I can't say," he told the jury. He stressed the importance of continuing the research and educating workers about the phenomenon.

Teck Cominco spokesperson David Parker said his company was reviewing the recommendations. In a press release written before the release of the conclusions from the jury, however, president and CEO Don Lindsay said that the "jury's recommendations would form part of our ongoing work."

Tragic confluence of events

The five-person jury was instructed to examine the deaths of environmental consultant Doug Erickson, Teck Cominco employee Bob Newcombe and paramedics Kim Weitzel and Shawn Currier, and to make recommendations in consequence. They reached the conclusion that their deaths were accidental.

The four of them succumbed from a lack of oxygen in a water-sampling shed on the site of the Sullivan Mine in Kimberley. The mine was being decommissioned at the time of the accident.

The first to enter the shed was Doug Erickson on May 15. He was taking weekly samples and breathed the oxygen-depleted air coming from the pipe. He was found two days after his disappearance. While trying to rescue him, Bob Newcombe also collapsed and fell into the bottom of the shaft and died.

Before attempting to rescue his colleague, he had time to call 911. The dispatch centre didn't understand the accident had happened in a confined area on a mine site.

When paramedic Kim Weitzel went into the shed, guided by a Teck Cominco contractor, she thought she was responding to a drowning. She wasn't told about the risks of gas and lost consciousness almost immediately. Her co-worker, Shawn Currier, then rushed to help her, and died in the same circumstances.

The rescue effort was delayed by a misunderstanding at the dispatch centre and confusion about the address of the sampling shed.

NDP to push for changes

About 40 to 50 people attended the inquest on a daily basis, among them families and friends of the victims. The families told the media they were generally satisfied with the results.

"The families are emotionally drained, and would like to take some time to digest the information but are generally satisfied with the recommendations," said B.J. Chute, director of public education for the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., on behalf of the families of the victims.

Minister of State for Mining Kevin Krueger told The Tyee his ministry would review the recommendations with the chief inspector of mines. "We take the recommendations seriously," he said.

He doubted, however, that stricter regulations could have prevented the accident in this case. "Prior to the accident, that specific shed at Sullivan Mine wasn't considered a confined space either under WCB standards or the Mines Act," he said.

New Westminster's NDP MLA Chuck Puchmayr said he would push for the recommendations at the legislative assembly. "Normally when an inquest comes out, the government is reluctant to act on a lot of them," he told The Tyee.

He was reminded of the case of farm worker Mohinder Kaur Sunar, who died in the crash of a van transporting berry pickers in 2003. Some recommendations from the coroner's inquest following the incident weren't implemented.

"Had the government acted on some of the recommendations, it could have very well saved the lives of three farm workers here when we had that terrific accident on Highway 1," he said.

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