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Inquest Families Still Seek Closure

Relatives of Sullivan Mine victims want better answers, stronger penalties from Mines Ministry.

Francis Plourde 18 Jul

Francis Plourde is a freelance journalist in Vancouver.

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Shawn Currier and Kim Weitzel.

A year ago last spring, two Teck Cominco employees and two paramedics perished in what is known as a confined-space accident.

And a year ago this month, family members of the four people killed in the Sullivan Mine accident left the city of Kimberley's Centennial Hall after several days of hearings that they said were at times draining and painful, but at other times satisfying to witness. Throughout the week of July 9, 2007, the families heard about how bad luck, poor communication and inappropriate safety policies resulted in the death of their loved ones.

After the hearings, as a spokesperson for the other families, George Weitzel, whose wife, Kim Weitzel perished in the accident, said that the coroner's inquest was a welcome step, but that the families would not get closure until significant changes were made to mining regulations in B.C.

Today, Weitzel acknowledges that the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources has made several of the changes proposed by the coroner's inquest jurors, especially in the way inspections are done. But he says unless the ministry follows through on another of the jurors' recommendations -- fines for rule violations -- that those new rules won't be effective. Because of that, and because he says the ministry has failed to communicate well with the families, the families remain dissatisfied.

Following the inquest, after examining the deaths of environmental consultant Doug Erickson, Teck Cominco employee Bob Newcombe and paramedics Kim Weitzel and Shawn Currier and finding them to be accidental, the five-person jury made six recommendations to the ministry.

Confused response

All four workers succumbed from a lack of oxygen in a water-sampling shed at the Sullivan Mine in Kimberley, which was in the process of being decommissioned at the time of the accident.

The first to enter the shed, on May 15, was Doug Erickson. He was taking weekly samples and breathing 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, fell into a cavity and died.

Before attempting to rescue his colleague, he had time to call 911. But 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.

Most jury findings implemented

On March 13, 2008, following the creation of a code review committee, Victoria announced amendments to the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in British Columbia. Through a press release, then minister of state for Mining Kevin Krueger announced that all the inquest recommendations aimed at the ministry had been addressed, and that most had been incorporated in the revised Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in British Columbia.

For example, the jury recommended that the ministry "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."

Had the regulation from WCB already been implemented on the mine site, the shed in which Doug Erickson died would have been defined as a confined space and signs would have warned of possible dangers.

The ministry has agreed to this change and the families are pleased. "By adapting the standards for confined spaces for the province to those of WorkSafeBC, they made positive changes here," says George Weitzel.

The ministry's amendments also included the adoption of new reporting requirements for mine managers in the event of an accident or dangerous occurrence.

Rules without teeth?

Despite these changes, Weitzel and the families are still concerned by a key aspect -- regarding penalty provision and annual inspections on mine sites -- that according to them is missing. "They didn't touch on Recommendation 12, and it's still frustrating to us," says Weitzel.

The panel 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, and that the government increases the penalty provisions to "reflect the seriousness of non-compliance."

NDP MLA Norm Macdonald has been moved by the strength of the families in their attempt to make sure an accident like the one that happened between May 15 and 17 of 2006 does not happen again. He asked for a commitment that inspections would be made on a regular basis, but so far to no avail. "Why is it unreasonable to ask that inspections be held at least once a year?" he asks. "When is this coming? When do we see implementation of Recommendation 12?"

"We don't see why they would make changes when they don't have an incentive to do so. The act has to have some teeth," adds Weitzel, and the lack of consequences for breaching the new rules takes away from the effectiveness of the new Mines Act regulations.

According to the ministry, however, penalties are already in place in case mining companies don't comply with the rules. "Shutting a portion or an entire operation down [as written in the code for mining] is a definite financial penalty. Section 37 of the Mines Act also provides penalties of up to one year in jail or a fine of up to $100,000," wrote communication director Graham Currie in an e-mail sent to The Tyee on May 17, 2008. Further details on the adequacy and application of these rules could not, however, be obtained, despite repeated inquiries.

Macdonald associates this lack of commitment to the influence of the mining industry in British Columbia. "The lack of work on Recommendation 12 has been a concern to us since the beginning. It's a test between public interest and a company extremely connected," he adds.

Families want answers

The families are also disappointed in the ministry's efforts to communicate with them. The Sullivan Mine accident coroner's inquest jury specifically recommended that the families be informed of measures taken by the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources following the publication of the recommendations.

Yet according to George Weitzel, only once did the ministry contact him on the question of the recommendations.

On March 13, Weitzel noticed a message on his voicemail from a representative of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. "He left his name and his phone number. I called him back and left a message, and I didn't hear a word. No response whatsoever."

The Tyee's calls were also not returned. Over the months of May and June, The Tyee sent several e-mails and made several phone calls to the ministry, with few results. Communication officers at the ministry stated several times that neither the former minister of state for mining, Kevin Krueger, nor the new chief inspector for mining in B.C., Douglas Sweeney, had time for interviews.

Weitzel says he and the other families lost confidence in the capacity of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources to communicate with them on the evolution of the review process.

Despite the desire of the families to get closure, no one at the ministry has taken the time to answer their concerns directly. And the families say that the attitude of the Ministry of Mines raises a more troubling issue: how should the government handle requests for more information by citizens directly involved in coroner's inquests, and how should it assist in creating closure for them and their relatives?

In George Weitzel's mind, however, one overriding question remains to be answered: will they get the assurance that Recommendation 12 will be implemented fully? "That's the only thing we ask," says Weitzel.

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