Shortly before the Morragh Mine blew up last June, an alarm went off in the surface control room, which warned of high methane levels underground. Twenty miners were killed in the explosion at the financially troubled mine. Since the mine did not know who was on shift at the time of the explosion, many wives of the miners received phone calls that morning asking if their husbands were at home. At the time of the explosion, the mine had been under an order from the provincial labour department to establish a safety plan to prevent coal-dust explosion.
The cause of the disaster was later established to have been ignition of coal dust, which was caused by an explosion of accumulated methane. Even before the two-year-old mine owned by the Calgary-based Westar Resources Inc. opened, it had been the subject of controversy. Morragh Mine cost $130 million to build and employed 210 people. Its main customer was Northern Hydro, a Crown corporation that had signed a contract to purchase 600,000 tons of the mine’s coal per year. The contract with Northern Hydro was a fifteen-year agreement to pay Morragh for set amounts of coal annually.
Local politicians criticized federal and provincial governments for financing the mine to a total of almost $90 million in loan guarantees and interest subsidies. Many local miners and resource specialists also doubted its safety. The mine tapped the Craigleigh Seam, one of the ten major seams that make up the Manitou County coal field. Before the disaster about 400 people had died in Manitou County coal mines, 250 of them in ten explosions. The Craigleigh Seam, the site of seven of these explosions, is known for its particularly high methane-gas content.
In spite of these concerns, miners were attracted to the company by the promise of fifteen years of work and good wages in a state-of-the-art mine. Most of the hires had hard-rock, not coal-mining experience. Ron Fraser, an employee of Morragh, remembers after the explosion, “A fifteen-year contract sure was appealing. I would have done almost anything to be hired here. ” Another employee recalls, “I thought the wages and benefits were great, but I was nervous working here from day one.
People were so scared of losing their jobs that they avoided talking to mine supervisors or inspectors. ” Shortly after opening, Morragh applied for and was granted exemptions to the provincial Coal Mine Regulation Act by the provincial department of labour. The company was given permission to use uncertified coal miners, as well as to use explosives and other equipment not allowed in coal mining under the Act, in order to develop two rock tunnels. The department of labour did specify, however, that the company would be required to perform ongoing testing for methane levels.
The mine manager and a certified mine examiner would bear this responsibility. In the first year of operation the mine had encountered difficulties in meeting production targets. In the first eleven months of production Northern Hydro had received only 200,000 tons of coal from the mine. The mine was also not recovering a quality of ore that could meet the specifications of the contract. Therefore, the mine would be penalized on the price it was paid by Northern Hydro for the small amount of ore it was delivering.
The method used at Morragh involved mining large quantities of coal with a gigantic mining machine called the continuous miner. This method, called the room-and-pillar method, involved hauling large slabs of coal out of the seam, then later extracting large pillars of remaining coal. The mine roof was supported with roof belts, secured with resin and attached to one another with metal strips. This process of mining was fairly common and in use in many parts of the United States and Canada.
Within days of the explosion inquiries were launched by both the provincial government and the RCMP. Subsequent to the investigations, the owner and five managers were charged with forty violations of provincial health and safety laws based on evidence, the bulk of it from internal mine reports, memorandums and statements from employees. Five months prior to the explosion, a shift boss reported that an underground area near the coal face had been fenced off to keep miners out, because a methane level of 2. 5 percent was indicated.
According to a penciled notation later found on a computer print-out in the control room, the methane level in the mine at the time of the explosion was high enough to require work to stop until the mine was ventilated to a safe level. Methane is considered explosive at levels between 5 and 15 percent but can easily ignite at lower percentages. Government regulations require coal-mining operations to stop when methane reached 1. 5 percent. At 2. 5 percent the area must be evacuated. The methane level penciled on the computer report was 1. 5 percent. Reports written by maintenance staff also indicated several safety problems.
One report noted: “Methanometers are not working or are missing from equipment in some cases. ” Another noted: “Gas detector warning light is malfunctioning. Cannot complete safety inspection without interrupting mining operations. ” Two months before the explosion a maintenance worker noted he could not complete work on equipment because it was needed for tunneling work. Reports of ankle-deep coal dust were also discovered. One maintenance worker’s reported noted two weeks before the explosion, “Every morning there is a thick layer of coal dust on the equipment. ” Dry coal dust explodes easily when ignited by a spark.
The provincial Coal Mines Regulation Act requires mines to apply a non-combustible material, such as limestone dust or water, in areas where dry coal dust accumulates. One supervisor later testified, “We dusted a lot on our shift, but I didn’t see other shifts doing it. Plus, working the hours we did there, was no time to dust unless you wanted to stay overtime. A lot of dusting was done when the mine first opened, but later only before government inspectors came. ” Two weeks earlier Morragh had started the process of installing a spray system to help reduce coal dust.
An internal Morragh memo dated six months before the disaster noted: “Production during last nine months not sufficient to finance development operations. Production cannot be increased because miners already working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Cash flow from Morragh insufficient for financing. ” Most coal mines operate five days per week, with the other two days spent on maintenance and servicing activities. A letter from Morragh to Northern Hydro two months before the explosion stated, “Morragh cannot meet contract conditions with bank and Northern Hydro.
Morragh requests extension of contract delivery date. ” Another letter three weeks later to Northern Hydro stated, “Morragh cannot meet contract for next month, can only supply 30,000 of contracted 50,000 tons. ” RCMP evidence also included a letter from the mine safety officer in which an unemployment insurance official outlined the claim of Fred Denzell, a miner who had quit over safety concerns. The letter stated Denzell’s reasons for quitting, including concerns that the mine was unsafe because of cave-ins, poor ventilation, and lack of response by Morragh to employee complaints about safety.
The personnel file of Brian White was also produced as evidence by the RCMP. Mr. White, a miner with fifteen years of experience, had quit working at the mine four months before the explosion because of safety concerns. Mr. White, when contacted by the RCMP, told them that he had contacted the provincial labour department to complain about mine conditions. “They told me that the mine was meeting safety regulations as required by the province. A lot of other miners supported my decision for leaving but didn’t speak out because they were afraid for their own jobs. Statements obtained from other employees indicated that company officials were aware of safety concerns but still ordered employees to work in dangerous conditions.
The affidavits included statements that “maintenance crews had modified underground equipment to conform with safety regulations that were not complied with before the explosion. ” One miner told of phoning the control room when shutdowns occurred. “When I asked what was happening, the guys wouldn’t know. They’d say, ‘Well, I’ve got a blue light on my screen, but I’m not sure what it means. ’”
Further interviews with miners added to the RCMP charges. For example, oil spilled on the mine floor and not cleaned; oil rags and cans left underground; twelve-hour shifts; and improper refueling of equipment underground. Morragh had an employee health and safety committee to deal with concerns, but as Frank Fisher, a representative on the committee, testified, “It was in name only. We came up with suggestions all the time but they were never implemented. Plus, the company never encouraged us to have meetings and never provided management staff for the committee. ”
The provincial government investigation revealed irregularities in the inspection practices of the labour department, which was responsible for inspecting Morragh Mine. “Management skills and work processes are below standard,” the labour minister stated after receiving the report of his department’s practices. “Accountability needs to be immediately improved. ” A safety inspector had ordered Morragh to clean up coal dust five months before the explosion, but there was no evidence that the order was carried out. At no time up to the disaster did the inspector order cessation of mining activities.
Court documents reveal that the order was one among many relating to unsafe mine practices inspectors observed underground in the year leading to the mine disaster. An external audit commissioned by the labour minister after the disaster outlined problems with inspections carried out by the department’s health and safety division: •“Files are inaccurate, incomplete and disorganized. ” •“Department orders identified violations by regulation number. There was no identification of the client or the specific infraction involved or remedies for infractions.
Therefore another safety officer would be unable to visit the site and observe whether the client had complied with the order. ” •“Most inspections appear to be haphazard and complaint-driven. ” •“Several files contain no resolution of incidents, so it is hard to determine whether compliance was achieved. Follow-up in some cases appears to be a letter from company indicating compliance. ” After being presented with the report, the labour minister stated, “This is news to me. ” He said his department would begin improving training and standards for safety officers.
The department would also rewrite old safety and mine laws. When interviewed about the findings of the health and safety division, the premier of the province stated, “We’re using consultants to audit the department, and rest assured, the problems will be corrected. Morragh has now been turned over to the provincial government while awaiting management by a new operator. At this time no company is known to be interested in opening the underground mine. Remaining Morragh miners are now members of the United Steelworkers of America, which had started an organizing drive at the time of the explosion.