Lessons hard-learned spark innovative developments
On May 9, 1992 at 5:18 a.m., a powerful explosion ripped through the Westray coal mine in Plymouth, Nova Scotia, killing all of the 26 men underground. A rush of methane had swept into the shaft.
“One spark—likely from the cutting head of the continuous miner striking a band of stone embedded in the coal seam—and the methane erupted in a flash of flame,” journalist Dean Jobb wrote in his book Calculated Risk: Greed, Politics and the Westray Tragedy.
TODAY, many mines are much safer than they were only a few decades ago and certainly completely different operations from those of the pioneer days. Robotic equipment, autonomous trucks, respirators and devices to detect methane are either commonplace or growing in use. Modern communications networks are also showing up deep underground.
Mining giant Vale has put such a communications system in placed at its Voisey’s Bay mine in Labrador. It’s helping keep everyone safe. “We are reaching two million hours to date without a lost-time incident and we believe as technology advances it will help us continue this trend,” says Joao Zanon, project director of the mine’s expansion project.
“One of the biggest challenges with underground mining is, obviously, that all the action happens underground. That means, if there are issues or problems in the mine, they may not be registered or rectified until the miner who identified them resurfaces at the end of the day,” he says.
At its Voisey’s Bay mine, Vale has put in place a system that provides both blisteringly-fast LTE wireless network connections and Wi-Fi underground. Smartphones loaded with Vale’s custom-built app allow the company to measure the work cycle and then start to automate it.
“When a miner shows up to work, they’ll take a smartphone out of a charging cradle and tap it against a chip on their hard hat, which logs them into the Vale network,” says Zanon. “They’ll then get an electronic job card describing their work for the day and be prompted to accept. The miner then has their assigned tasks and can go about their job for the day.
“If they run into challenges, they can instantly alert their supervisor or someone else on the surface and work to get it resolved,” he says.
THAT’S where the mining industry is headed—but it’s not the environment in which the Westray miners were toiling more than a quarter century ago. In Atlantic Canada, the Westray disaster was the worst mining accident in more than three decades, ever since the Springhill mine tragedy of 1958 when the ground started to shake and sections of the mine collapsed. Seventy-five men died that day.
The last remaining survivor of the Springhill tragedy, Herbert Pepperdine, passed away in 2018 at the age of 95. During the disaster, he had spent eight days underground in the dark. Despite that hardship, he reportedly said years later he would gladly go back into a mine again.
Strange? Maybe. But not an unusual response.
These are tough, dirty jobs. They come with the risk of serious injury and even death. But they’re also good-paying jobs, allowing the men and women in the mining industry to provide for their families and help build their communities. Ask any miner. He or she will likely tell you this is a job that’s gotten into their bones
“I loved my job. Most of us did,” says retired miner Ron Jessulat. “I did it, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Once you start mining, it kind of gets into your blood and you fall in love with it. You see concrete results every day.”
There’s a feeling of pride among miners for building something awesome in size. In northern New Brunswick, the Brunswick Mine where Jessulat worked had a shaft going down to more than twice the height of the CN Tower. The mine included almost enough tunnels to stretch the entire length of Prince Edward Island.
The ever-present and often frightening, gritty reality of just what it’s like to work in a mine is something that’s made its way deep into the psyche of Atlantic Canada.
Underground mining has so captured the popular imagination as to lead to tall tales of ghosts and supernatural happenings, including a story about a woman known as Mother Coos. The wife of miner George Korson, she is alleged to have had the gift of second sight and prophesied the Springhill disaster of 1891.
“The Scottish miners … believed in her second sight and demanded a thorough investigation of the mine. It was made by a special board of inspection composed of practical miners, company officials and mining experts,” George Korson is reported as having recounted. “Their conclusion was that there was nothing wrong with the mine; everything was in ‘ship-shape condition.’
“Nevertheless, Mother Coos held fast to her prediction that ‘something will happen.’
“It did happen and on Feb. 21, 1891, just two days after the official inspection, a dust explosion wrecked the mine, and 125 miners were burned to death, leaving 54 widows and 160 orphans.”
THE ORIGINS of mining in Atlantic Canada go far, far back to a people that no longer even exist: the Maritime Archaic Indians.
Dr. Derek Wilton, a geologist and honorary research professor in Memorial University’s Earth Sciences department, says little is known about those First Nations people other than they had a very materially sophisticated culture. Roughly 4,000 years ago, the Maritime Archaic Indians mined the chert beds at Ramah Bay in Labrador. Skillfully-flaked stone spear points with narrow blades, knives and scrapers, axes, adzes and gouges for woodworking have all been found in archeological digs.
At Fleurs de Lys in northern Newfoundland, there is also evidence of another First Nations settlement where people mined long before the arrival of Europeans to the New World. Here are historic soapstone quarries mined by the Dorset, an indigenous people who occupied most of the province for about 1,000 years starting in 500 B.C. In the rockface, the Dorset left the remains of bowls and oil lamps in various stages of preparation.
Indeed, First Nations people were Canada’s first miners, trading in copper from excavations around Lake Superior as far back as 6,000 years ago and in silver from the Cobalt area for about 400 years starting in 200 B.C.
In A Century of Achievement—The Development of Canada’s Minerals Industries, the late Dr. John Udd, then the director of Natural Resources Canada’s mining research laboratories, suggested there must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of small prehistoric mine sites across Canada before Europeans ever set foot on the continent. The early history of mining is littered with examples of Canada’s indigenous people showing the newcomers where the resources were.
In 1858, Captain Champagn L’Estrange, a British army officer, became the first person to discover gold in Nova Scotia while hunting in Mooseland with Mi’gmaq guides.
Later, in 1936, Joseph Retty, the man credited with discovering the iron ore deposits in the Labrador-Quebec boundary that led to the formation of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, was guided to that deposit by the Innu.
ABBIE MICHALIK is a retired, third-generation coal miner who works as a senior guide at the Cape Breton Miners Museum. He explains to visitors how the seams of coal in Port Morien led to the first modern mine in the region back in 1720. “It was worked by the French soldiers because they needed coal to heat the fortress at Louisbourg,” says Michalik. In those days, coal was loaded onto wooden boats using wheelbarrows and carts.
Over the centuries, a lot has changed.
Pit ponies, small horses bred and trained to haul coal, used to be brought into the mines by boys as young as nine years old. Even as recently as the 1920s, 13-year-old boys would crawl into coal seams half a metre high and scoop coal out with buckets in Cape Breton.
Canaries were formerly brought into coal mines to detect dangerous methane gas in the earliest days of coal mining. Period photographs show men with lit candles tucked into their felt hats to provide lighting as they worked in the coal mines.
When she was still only about six years old, Gloria Dumphy, now a senior citizen, would visit her grandparents’ home near the Springhill mine. Every so often, the ground would shake. “I watched dishes fly off the shelf,” she recalls. “The tremors were so bad the whole house would start to shake.”
In a mine, tremors can be deadly. But, according to Dumphy’s grandfather, the miners had a rather unusual way to tell when the tremors would start. “My grandfather used to say that you could always tell when there was going to be a tremor because all the rats in the mine would start to leave,” says Dumphy.
MINING SAFETY has come a long way. Candles gave way to Sir Humphry Davy’s safety lamp in 1816 and to electric lighting by the 1920s.
“The risk of accident was considered as considerably less than that of the ordinary Davy lamp, especially when it is remembered that with the brilliant light of the electric lamps they need no longer be carried in the hand or set down upon the floor… but could be fixed overhead at a safe distance against the wall of the mine,” wrote civil engineer David Seath in Mining Inventors and Innovations Through History.
Picks and shovels were replaced in coal mines by shearer cutters, massive machines with five or six rotating discs fitted with cutter picks on their periphery.
Nitroglycerin replaced fires to break the rock—and that dangerous explosive was later replaced by dynamite, only to itself be replaced by the several different kinds of explosives used by mining companies today.
With its formidable engineering challenges, the mining industry has been the impetus for many inventions. The steam engine, invented in 1710 by Thomas Newcomen, was initially designed to raise water and heavy loads out of coal mines. When James Watt added to it seven years later by inventing the condensation chamber, the efficiency of the steam engine was greatly increased, leading to the creation of the first locomotive in 1784.
These days, internal combustion engines power trucks and much of the other machinery, along with electricity, in mines. But almost all of these machines still need human operators. And that’s where the next wave of innovation is happening—at the level of the operators.
In Nevada, Barrick Gold Corp. is already running mining trucks without drivers, says Autonomous Solutions Inc. (ASI) marketing manager Brandon Taylor. “Barrick Gold is the first organization that we’re working with in North American that is a fully autonomous project,” says Taylor. ASI is already talking with other mining operators but Taylor won’t name which ones because of non-disclosure agreements. Iron Ore of Canada may be one of them. Rio Tinto, one of the partners in the Iron Ore of Canada joint venture, is already using autonomous trucks, trains and drilling rigs in Western Australia.
Although the ASI-equipped trucks do not have drivers behind the wheel, they do still need a human operator to control them, telling them which routes to take. That operator, though, can manage six or seven mining trucks at once, greatly cutting down on payroll costs. And, in theory, the operator could be almost anywhere. Rio Tinto operates its autonomous equipment in Western Australia from an office 1,000 km away, in Perth.
And as strides continue to be made in artificial intelligence and communication systems, Wilton says mines that are completely machine-operated are coming. As innovation advances, so too does the measure of security for a historically risky industry. •