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Canada: Province Says Donkin Coal Mine Can Reopen, But First the Owner Has to Meet Some Conditions


November 17, 2023 - The Nova Scotia government says coal can once again be dug from the underground mine in Donkin, but the mine owner will have to meet the conditions of one compliance order before work can begin and another order by the end of February to continue mining.

stop-work order was issued against Kameron Coal's mine in Cape Breton in July when the roof fell in the main access tunnel twice in one week.

On Wednesday, Labour Minister Jill Balser said it has been four months since the stop-work order was issued, because the mine owner had to fix the roof and the government was waiting for an independent engineer's review before deciding how and when to lift the order.

"We've been thinking about the miners and their families from day one and we wanted to make sure that this mine is as safe as it can possibly be to make sure that the miners go to work and come home safely," she said.

To restart, Kameron Coal will have to update its hazard assessment in the access tunnels and add further monitoring measures to detect movement in the roof and prevent potential falls.

After that, the company can start digging coal again, but it also has to get a third-party review of its ground control management plan done by Feb. 29, 2024, to stay open.

A woman in a grey sweater and glasses speaks into a microphone.
Nova Scotia Labour Minister Jill Balser says it took the province four months to decide what to do with a stop-work order because officials wanted it to be as safe as possible. David Laughlin/CBC
That deadline has been set to take advantage of low-humidity conditions during the winter months.

It's expected that mining could begin again this winter, but Scott Nauss, senior executive director of the Labour Department's safety division, said when exactly is up to the mine owner.

"The ball's in the mine company's court at this point," he said.

No one from Kameron Coal was available for comment, but Nauss said the department has been in regular contact with the company and it has indicated its intent to get going again.

The company laid off more than 40 mine workers in the summer and another 15 near the end of October.

Last week, it laid off the rest of the workers, amid concerns that the third-party engineering review was taking too long.

Cape Breton Regional Municipality deputy mayor James Edwards, a member of the mine's community liaison committee, said the miners and businesses were expressing frustration at the length of time it's taking to get a report from Dalhousie University engineering professor Andrew Corkum.

'Miners getting quite antsy'

"They're just hoping to have the report ASAP, because the miners are getting quite antsy, let's face it," he said.

"The mine hasn't been working for over three months now, so the miners are getting worried."

Corkum was hired at the end of September to review the mining company's safety plans.

On Wednesday, he said Kameron Coal is doing a fairly reasonable job of ground control — a term used to describe roof support in an underground mine.

A man in a grey jacket, checked shirt and glasses speaks into a microphone.
Dalhousie University professor Andrew Corkum says the rock in the Donkin mine's roof is susceptible to high humidity, which is one of the causes of roof falls. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Corkum also said most roof falls are a result of high humidity, which can affect the clay-based rock roof above the Donkin coal seam.

"There's really little record of any problems in the low-humidity seasons like the winter," he said.

However, Corkum identified what the government called "gaps" in Kameron Coal's ground control plans.

The compliance orders are intended to ensure the company fills those in and improves the safety of workers.

Smoke is seen billowing from the Donkin coal mine in Cape Breton April 30, 2023.
The Donkin mine has suffered more than 30 roof falls since it opened in 2017 and was hit with an underground fire earlier this year. (Daniel Dillon/Facebook)

The mine shafts on the Donkin peninsula were driven under the Atlantic Ocean in the 1980s by the federal government, but they were never opened and were flooded to keep them from collapsing.

Several efforts were made to get the mine open, which finally occurred under Kameron Coal in 2017.

Corkum said flooding has not helped the humidity in the mine and while the owners have taken some steps to deal with it, there is more that could be done.

He said another engineering report should identify the best practices used to work under weak rock in other jurisdictions.

The mine has suffered more than 30 roof falls of three tonnes or more since it opened in 2017 and was hit with an underground fire earlier this year.