MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining a Dirty Business in More Ways Than One

Published by MAC on 2006-01-12

Mining a Dirty Business in More Ways Than One

by Joan Delaney, Epoch Times Victoria Staff (Canada)

12th January 2006

The shocking mine accident in the U.S. last week has brought mine safety back to the headlines after twelve underground miners lost their lives when an explosion ripped through the Sago coal mine in West Virginia.

While the cause of the blast is still unknown, the Sago mine had been cited for 108 safety violations in 2005, double that of 2004, but the largest fine the mine owner paid was $440. Critics say that isn't nearly enough to push mine companies to improve safety conditions for workers.

It's not uncommon to hear of deadly mining disasters elsewhere in the world. Every month, it seems, tragic stories of mine explosions or flooding in countries like China make headlines. But the tragic incident in West Virginia brought the issue home, raising questions about the mining industry in Canada.

Joan Kuyek, National Coordinator of MiningWatch Canada, says mine accidents have been decreasing in Canada in recent years due to automation and a move from underground to open-pit mining. On the downside though, she says a decrease in unionised mines has led to a relaxing of safety standards in underground mines, and unions are being threatened by contracting out.

"It's our position that having a union makes a real difference in safety in mines because they can advocate on behalf of the workers. There's more and more mining being done by contract workers which aren't unionised, and the workers don't have the same ability to speak up as they would with a union. These workers don't have any protection."

Challenging the mining companies to better protect workers is an uphill battle.

"When you take on the mining industry," says Kuyek, "you're dealing not only with the mining companies but also with banks and investment firms."

The foreign affairs department says almost 60 percent of exploration and mining companies worldwide are listed on Canadian stock exchanges. The mining sector accounts for $42 billion in cumulative direct investment around the world, and it's expected a further $14 billion will be invested in new projects over the next five years.

Kuyek says these huge sums of money encourage the Canadian government to act like a press agent for the mining companies.

Some Canadian provincial governments, most notably B.C. and Ontario, have taken an anti-union stance resulting in loss of union strength and bargaining power. Retired Yellowknife miner Cliff Morosz, who comes from a family of miners and has worked in various mines across Canada for over 25 years, says the mining companies' efforts to replace unionised workers with contract workers doesn't bode well for safety underground or the wellbeing of the miners.

"The unions had to fight hard for every concession they got for the workers. The unions kept the companies honest. Now they go to places like Newfoundland where there's no work and they hire workers that aren't qualified and pay them less. If they complain about anything they get fired, because there's plenty more where they came from."

One of the most bitter labour disputes in Canadian history occurred at Giant Mine in Yellowknife in 1992 when Royal Oak Mines locked out the miners a day before they had planned to strike. The mine company then contracted the Pinkerton Security group to patrol the property. Eighteen months of tension, sporadic violence and skirmishes with police followed as Royal Oak-in an effort to bust the union-hired replacement workers to cross the picket lines.

Eventually a bomb was set in a mine shaft by striking mine worker Roger Warren who claimed he only wanted to scare off the workers from crossing the picket lines. Nine men were killed in the blast and Warren is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. Giant Mine has since closed but, according to Moroz, almost 15 years later there is still ill-feeling among the people of Yellowknife over the incident.

Moroz says that, while he loved the mining life and made a good living at it, because mining is a dangerous job at the best of times the mine companies should be held more accountable.

"If they can get away without providing ventilation they'll do it. I've worked in mines where it was so smoky you couldn't see the instrument panel on the muck machine. It's all about the almighty dollar--the bottom line is all they care about."

But safety isn't the only problem in the mining industry. In December 2005 the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines was slammed for failing to protect the environment and taxpayers of Ontario from the poisonous after-effects of mining. A report by the Ontario auditor general found that at least 250 of the 5,600 abandoned mine sites in Ontario were "toxic waste dumps."

The situation is worse overseas, says Kuyek, where Canadian companies cause massive pollution and use heavy-handed tactics against locals who oppose their activities.

"Mining deposits in populated areas are more or less depleted now, so they're looking all over the globe for other sources of ore and a lot of that is on indigenous land in traditional communities. So they're having to displace indigenous people in order to mine. There's a lot of conflict around it and in Papua New Guinea people have been killed. There are demonstrations against Canadian mining companies in Chile, Romania, Bulgaria.."

In July 2005 the Liberal government rejected a call to hold Canadian mining companies operating abroad responsible for human rights and environmental abuses, opting instead for voluntary compliance from the mining industry. The proposal to hold the mining companies accountable came from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade (SCFAIT) and was backed by dozens of NGOs. SCFAIT has concerns about the impact of Canadian mining in countries such as the Congo, Colombia, Sudan, and the Philippines.

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