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Vol. 76/No. 11      March 19, 2012

Vale disregarded safety
hazard before mine deaths
MONTREAL—The United Steelworkers issued a report Feb. 29 calling for the Ontario government to consider criminal charges against the Vale Ltd. mining company and its management in the deaths of two miners in Sudbury, Ontario. Jason Chenier, a supervisor, and Jordan Fram, a member of USW Local 6500, died on June 8, 2011, after a torrent of wet mud and ore flooded the tunnel where they were working at Vale’s Stobie mine.

“Vale management pursued a ‘production first’ philosophy” in which the “focus was primarily on production,” the union report states. “Stobie mine management knowingly accepted risky practices and failed to address known hazardous work conditions.” The union is also calling for a government investigation into the fatalities.

Vale, based in Brazil, is the second biggest mining company in the world. Since the deaths at the Stobie mine, two other workers have been killed at Vale mines in Canada. The company and union are conducting joint inquiries.

In the deaths of Chenier and Fram, the USW carried out an independent examination, saying the company put too many limits and restrictions on a joint investigation.

Among many issues, the USW found that Vale management had ignored ongoing problems with flooding in the mine, including plugged drain holes and accumulations of several feet of water in sections of the mine above the level where Chenier and Fram were killed. The report reveals that senior managers knew about the water, which combined with rock and sand caused the fatal muck slide.

Prior to the incident, Chenier had erected double guardrails, safety barriers in the area. The company “should not be dumping or blasting this ore pass until the water situation is under control,” he wrote in an email to management. In the two days leading up to the deadly muck flow, the report states, “it is apparent that the double guardrail had been removed a minimum of three times for production purposes.”

“We believe Jason Chenier and Jordan Fram would be alive today if Vale management had followed Chenier’s warnings,” USW Local 6500 President Rick Bertrand said in a news release.

On March 1, Vale issued a statement by Kelly Strong, a vice president and the general manager of operations in Ontario, in response to the union’s report. “We reject the USW’s allegations of negligence and are prepared to defend the company and our employees fully if required,” he wrote. The company’s internal investigation concluded that the deaths were the result of “a number of factors” with “no single cause or individual at fault,” he said. Vale has not released its report on the deaths to the public, according to the company’s office in Sudbury. Cory McPhee, vice president of corporate affairs, has not returned a call from the Militant requesting comment.

Among the 165 recommendations listed at the end of the union report is that workers be allowed to directly file “079” reports documenting safety issues. Since July 2010, following a yearlong strike by 3,000 USW members that ended with many concessions, the company has required a supervisor’s approval to submit these reports. In the recent period, the union investigation asserts, “frequently workers were discouraged from reporting hazards.”

“One thing that stands out for me is that the union is pursuing holding the bosses accountable. The company says that safety is their number one concern,” Tim Levesque, an underground miner at Vale’s Coleman mine, told the Militant. “I don’t believe it for a minute. The almighty dollar is more important.”
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