Morragh Mine

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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...
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