OHS Canada Magazine

Feature

Safety Submerged

The deaths of three workers tasked with helping to refurbish a shaft at the Bachelor Lake gold mine in northwestern Quebec reveals in sad, often shocking, detail the need for constant vigilance.


Bruno Goulet, Domenico Bollini and Marc Guay entered the hoist cage and were lowered to the 12th level of the mine, where water had been collecting for days. (Photo credit: CSST)
Bruno Goulet, Domenico Bollini and Marc Guay entered the hoist cage and were lowered to the 12th level of the mine, where water had been collecting for days. (Photo credit: CSST)

The deaths of three workers tasked with helping to refurbish a shaft at the Bachelor Lake gold mine in northwestern Quebec reveals in sad, often shocking, detail the need for constant vigilance.

On the night of October 30, 2009, the men had collected some instruments at the sixth level of the mine. They stepped into a hoist cage and gave the above-ground hoist operator the all-clear to lower them to the mine’s 12th level. The operator waited for the workers’ signal that they had reached their destination safely. He never got it.

Unbeknownst to the three workers – or, it seems, anyone else on site – the mine’s flood alarm was offline and water had been filling the lower recesses of the shaft not for minutes or hours, but for days.

Growing concerned, the hoist operator tried to contact them after about 10 minutes. No response. Soon afterward, a supervisor descended the shaft by ladder and came upon the chilling scene: water had filled the mine to about a metre shy of the 11th-level roof. The men were nowhere to be seen.

GOLD RUSH

The failure to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and to adhere to best practices was a slip in vigilance that cost Bruno Goulet, 36, Domenico Bollini, 44, and Marc Guay, 31, their lives that day.

The Bachelor Lake mine, owned by Metanor Resources Inc. out of Val-d’Or, Quebec, is located about 225 kilometres to the northeast, near Desmaraisville. Slightly more than 130,000 ounces of gold was unearthed in the 1980s before production ceased. With gold prices on the rise, Metanor Resources purchased the mothballed mine in late 2004 and instituted a dewatering program that enabled underground drilling to begin the following year.

The company was well on its way by the time of the flooding, having extended the mine’s head frame and installed a new hoist. It had also contracted Montali Inc. to sink the shaft another 210 metres to a depth 771 metres.

On the night in question, Goulet and Bollini, employees of Metanor Resources, and Guay, who worked for Montali, were continuing with the ongoing rehabilitation of the shaft. After picking up some instruments on the sixth level, the workers stepped into the cage at about 9:15 pm, Quebec’s Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CSST) notes in its investigation report, released last October.

Pierre Turgeon, a spokesperson for the CSST, said in February that the report found “there were a lot of flaws” around safety. The hope is that lessons will be learned to prevent future fatalities, Turgeon says.

CSST investigators determined that crucial hazard controls were not used: the lower end of the mine shaft had not been inspected for water that day, contrary to provincial requirements; and the high-water alarm was not working, having been without power for an unknown period of time.

Turgeon says that at some point between June 4 and the day of the incident, someone disconnected the alarm. “Nobody during the [CSST] inquiry process said they were aware of the alarm being disconnected.”

That meant that no one knew a leak at the junction of two pipes in the pumping system had caused 75 metres of water to collect at the bottom of the mine. System monitoring on October 21 would have offered a clue that something had gone awry, with computer readings indicating a marked decrease in the amount of water being pumped from the mine.

For about the first three weeks of October, approximately 2,300 cubic metres (m3) of water was being pumped out daily. That was considerably more than the average of 1,400 m3 between October 21 and October 30.

Turgeon reports that the information, which was available from a computer at the mine site, seemed to go unnoticed by everyone there.

A frantic search effort for Goulet, Bollini and Guay proved fruitless. After the supervisor discovered the high water, more workers descended the shaft to try to help with what was initially hoped to be a rescue mission. However, it was soon transformed to recovery.

The CSST reports a pump was installed at the 10th level to dewater the mine and rescue teams from two nearby operations were called in to lend some helping hands.

One of the worker’s bodies was found at the 11th level on the morning of November 2; within hours, the other two deceased were located below that level.

Metanor Resources subsequently hired an engineer to confirm there was no risk of quick flooding, and rehabilitation of the mine shaft was allowed to resume on November 16. The company was also directed to install a high-water alarm system below the 12th level, inspect the system weekly and check the lower end of the shaft daily if the hoist was in use. 

FINGERS POINTED

Along with the release of its report last fall, the CSST recommended that Metanor Resources receive an occupational health and safety fine of $5,000 to $20,000, then the maximum range for a first offence causing death. (The penalty range has since been increased three times and is now tied to the inflation rate.)

The CSST points to a failure to manage danger from underground water, “particularly with regard to keeping the water level alarm system in operation and verifying the lower end of the shaft.”

But Metanor Resources is contesting the penalty, finding  fault with the CSST investigation and some of the conclusions reached by investigators. The issue is not the size of the fine, which the company’s human resources manager Pierre Bernaquez describes as relatively small, but rather that Montali, as the contractor, has not been penalized as well.

“We accept that maybe we have part of the responsibility [for the incident],” says Bernaquez, “but not all of the responsibility.” Arguing that Montali gets off lightly in the report, he adds that “a lot of people made a mistake on that day.”

Bernaquez points out that the hoist operator, a Montali employee, failed to verify the bottom of the shaft was free of water, and all three workers should have descended to the 12th level in inspection mode – standing atop the cage and moving very slowly.

“Everything was [under] the supervision of Montali,” he maintains, adding that the company was contracted precisely because of its specialization in shaft rehabilitation. (Montali officials did not return phone calls for comment.)

CSST investigators take a different view. They contend that various Metanor Resources supervisors were overseeing and responsible for the work that night, Turgeon says. It is those differences in opinion that are at the heart of the case, which will be heard before the Court of Quebec, he says.

In line with the spirit of Quebec’s oh&s laws, Turgeon notes the owner of a workplace is always the first entity responsible for ensuring safety – a reality not always well-understood by owners themselves. A fine for Montali was considered, he says, but the CSST opted against it. “It’s always a case-by-case examination,” Turgeon says.

Bernaquez reports that Metanor Resources made numerous changes following the deadly incident, such as installing a fail-safe flood alarm and hiring someone to supervise the oh&s procedures of contractors.

Metanor Resources continues to contract Montali. Financing was secured in January to return Bachelor Lake to production, with projections that the mine will produce an average of 60,000 ounces of gold annually.

IRREPARABLE HARM

Zoë Younger, vice-president of corporate affairs for the Mining Association of British Columbia in Vancouver, says the “horrifying” incident caught the attention of mining stakeholders across the country. The only positive to be drawn from a mining death in Canada or elsewhere is to learn from it, Younger suggests. “It’s a horrible thing to have happen to a person, to their families, to a community.”

In part, Bachelor Lake was so shocking because, as Younger and others note, mi
ning typically ranks among the safest heavy industries in many provinces.

The sector in Quebec has “made several gains over the years” on the health and safety front, says Turgeon. Between 1991 and 2010, mining’s disabling injury rate – comprised of both lost-time and modified work claims – fell 76 per cent, notes a September, 2010 statement from the Quebec Mining Association.

In Ontario, industry players are aiming high in the hopes of going low: essentially a zero frequency lost-time injury rate. A look at mining’s trend line over the last decade shows that “we’re well on our way to achieving that,” says Dwayne Plamondon, vice-president of northeast and mine rescue at Workplace Safety North (WSN) in North Bay, Ontario, an association created to serve the oh&s needs of mining, forestry, pulp and paper and northern businesses in the province.

Ontario’s mining and primary smelting sector registered 0.79 lost-time injuries per 100 workers in 2010, while the rate in farming was 2.28 and 1.57 in construction.

And in British Columbia, 2010 marked just the second fatality-free year for mining operations in about a century, reports Al Hoffman, the province’s chief inspector of mines.

Says Younger, “We’re thinking about [safety] all the time, and I think that’s reflected in the stats.”

WATER HAZARD

Still, as much as mining’s safety record continues to improve, incidents do occur. Bachelor Lake demonstrates that improperly managed water, as would be the case with hazards such as falls, machinery and air quality, can be deadly.

Water is both a tool – it can be used to suppress dust, wet down muck piles, assist drilling processes and more – and a hazard that is usually managed without incident, but one that has claimed mining lives long ago and more recently.

  • Three miners survived and three others died during a collapse at the Balmer South coal mine in British Columbia on June 19, 1969. News articles at the time indicated that water, mud and rock came crashing down after miners blasted into an old mine working. Rescuers drilled and blasted for 14 hours to reach the survivors three days later. The miners had managed to make it from about 200 metres below surface to a side room at a higher level.
  • In May of 2009, seven coal miners in West Virginia were stranded when heavy rains caused water to enter the mine’s portals, pool in a low area and block escape routes. Storm runoff water entered the portals “after being diverted when culverts underneath the portals became blocked by debris, mud and rock,” notes a report by the Mine Safety and Health Administration In the United States. A bottleneck and a build-up of sediment “prevented the ditches from functioning as designed.” The miners were trapped for almost 24 hours before the water was pumped down.
  • Cameco Corporation’s Cigar Lake project in northern Saskatchewan, expected to begin production in 2013, was the scene of a large flood in the fall of 2006. Water began to flow into the uranium mine following an underground rock fall, notes a statement from the company. Workers tried to contain water inflow by closing two bulkhead doors, but were not successful. In August of 2008, shaft remediation was temporarily suspended when an increase in the rate of water inflow was discovered. The company took steps to determine the source and characteristics of the inflow and any implications for the planned remediation.

All of these incidents show different ways in which water can become a problem in underground mines. In the case of Balmer South, having a firm grasp of surroundings is critical. “There is a risk when you come close to an old working,” Younger points out.

“The key is to make sure that you have properly mapped your site and that you have identified where the potential risk is,” she says. It is also necessary to put in place “controls to monitor the water level so that if something were to happen, you would be well-aware of it.”

Hoffman says that British Columbia requires operators to “keep very tight planning and records of where your openings are so that you don’t drill into areas that might contain water or previous workings.”

By regulation, says Younger, mine workings in the province must not come within 30 metres of an abandoned or old working. “Even though we rely on good mapping, there is safety built in when you’re talking about a 30 metre no-go zone,” she suggests.

Unwanted water may also come from weather events, as was the case with the West Virginia mine. Younger says that protecting natural water courses at the surface, another regulatory requirement, will help maintain natural drainage and keep water away from operations.

Underground pipes carry water for production-related purposes or transfer pumped water to the surface, says Hoffman. But damage to these pipes can lead to unwanted water accumulation, as was seen at Bachelor Lake.

Hoffman says it is standard practice to monitor sump high-water alarms at the surface control room and underground.

The alarms are part of a comprehensive water control program that typically includes fail-safes. The protective measure ensures that if an alarm goes offline, says Plamondon, the information is communicated to workers.

“I believe those programs have been pretty strong,” adds Alex Gryska, manager of Ontario Mine Rescue in Sudbury, Ontario, which is part of WSN. Gryska notes that there has been no major flooding incidents in Ontario mines.

Turgeon says that flooding is a potential challenge not only when it is detected, but when it is not. “This type of accident is rare, but the consequences are serious,” he says.

Following Bachelor Lake, the CSST blitzed underground mines with vertical shafts (open-pit and ramp-access underground mines were excluded). Of the 14 mines inspected, all but one was equipped with functioning high-water alarms, Turgeon reports.

In addition, the CSST requested that operators ensure all alarm systems be equipped with fail-safes, despite this not being mandated under provincial regulations.

Regular inspection and maintenance of piping systems must be completed, Turgeon advises. “Unusual water levels monitored by the pumping systems are to be verified on a continuous basis by the maintenance crew. This good practice will greatly decrease the probabilities of flooding.”

With soaring mineral prices, Turgeon notes that many companies may be motivated to reopen closed mines, perhaps those that are flooded, meaning water hazards may become a more regular feature of the mining landscape.

“It goes without saying that dewatering old mines can be extremely dangerous work,” Gryska says. The more extensive the mine’s underground workings, he says, the greater the potential for suspended pockets of water and other material. 

But increased activity does not have to translate into more hazards, Gryska suggests. Ontario’s mining sector has experienced rehabilitation booms in the past and related flooding incidents did not spike, he says. “That would suggest that the precautions that are currently being taken are adequate.”

WSN information notes that managing water is also an important part of controlling runs of material, when material such as sand, crushed stone and muck moves unexpectedly.

“We have different infrastructure in a mine where water will influence the behaviour of the material,” Plamondon says. For that reason, ore passes and the like must be monitored closely for the development of dangerous conditions.

Between 1980 and 2005, he reports, there were 13 fatalities in Ontario related to runs of material, although not all were caused by water.

RESCUE DEMANDS

Bachelor Lake clearly illustrates that a flooded underground mine poses unique rescue challenges. And it may be these unique conditions that make
training a particular challenge.

In Ontario, Gryska says that mine rescue teams generally do not train for flooded conditions. “You need specialized equipment, special training and whatnot,” he says.

In some Eastern European countries, in fact, rescue teams are trained for efforts completely under water, including mines. “They have everything from miniature submarines to specialized equipment to respond to incidents where miners could get trapped,” Gryska reports.

Here at home, some Ontario mines reach as much as three kilometres underground, meaning divers would be unable to handle the water pressure associated with a major flooding. And the mine refuge stations that may be available are designed to protect against fire and smoke, but are not water tight, Gryska adds.

Hoffman suggests it would be difficult to respond quickly enough to prevent a drowning. Members of a rescue team would need to ensure they could safely proceed down a flooded shaft before doing so, he says. And the time needed to complete that necessary assessment could be too long for the submerged miners.

“Mining is a very unforgiving environment,” Hoffman notes. “You make a mistake and you can get killed quite easily, so you have to ensure that procedures are followed.”

The lesson came too late for those at Bachelor Lake, but the sad reminder can offer learning elsewhere. “Those consequences are irreparable, and it’s a reminder to be vigilant,” says Younger.

Dan Birch is assistant editor of OHS CANADA.

Sidebars:

NOT SO FINE

A fine of $5,000 to $20,000 has been recommended for Metanor Resources in connection with the deaths at the Bachelor Lake gold mine, in keeping with the maximum allowable penalty under provincial law at the time.

While no financial penalty can estimate the worth of human life, the paltry fine no doubt has some critics questioning the deterrence value of Quebec’s fine structure for occupational health and safety violations. Some provinces (think Alberta and Ontario) routinely order higher penalties for far less serious incidents, made easier by the fact that the maximum fine per count for an employer is $500,000.

Quebec took a small step to bring provincial maximums in line with some other provinces in January, raising the top fine for a first offence to $60,000. “Workplace health and safety is a priority for our government,” says Harold Fortin, press secretary for provincial labour minister Lise Thériault. “That is why we already adopted a bill to increase these fines,” Fortin says, pointing out the increase was the first in three decades.

Daniel Roy, director of the Quebec district for the United Steelworkers in Montreal, characterizes all workplace deaths as “deplorable and the deaths of the three miners is unacceptable.” Although none of the men were members, the deadly incident has prompted the union to re-emphasize “the importance of prevention with our members in every field,” Roy says.

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SAFETY STEPS

Careful management of water is critically important to the safety of those who work in mines. A number of best practices will help prevent water inundation, notes a hazard alert from the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the United States. These best practices include the following:

  • take stock of all active or abandoned mine workings located near new mining areas and determine the water levels;
  • perform a diligent search for the final, dated and signed maps of old workings in mines above, below or adjacent to mining areas;
  • gather information about mining in old or abandoned mines by interviewing local sources, former miners, and walking or examining outcrops;
  • pay attention to both surface subsidence and geological structures;
  • consider the use of directional, long-hole drilling to ensure adequate barriers around mining areas; and,
  • provide sufficient barrier pillars in mines and evaluate interburden thickness. Compare mine surveys from a common base line.