The copper dryer that sent a Highland Valley Copper employee to hospital and prompted a staff walkout last Wednesday is not being used unless there are guards in place to prevent another sulphur dioxide leak.
Richard Boyce, president of United Steelworkers local 7619, said Tuesday an investigation into the incident took place Monday.
“I would argue it was one of the best investigations I’ve seen take place at the mine as far as the attitude being get everything out on the table,” he said.
Workers brought forward enough statements and testimony to conclude without doubt that there was a sulphur dioxide leak, that the four alarms and monitors in place didn’t work and that there’s been an increasing problem with that copper dryer and SO2 emissions, he said.
“There was a commitment right away up front from the supt. to say the copper dryer wouldn’t be fired up unless 100 per cent guards were in place to prevent things like this,” he said.
“They brought in the detector manufacturers to determine what went wrong and to put in checks and balance so it can’t recur,” said Boyce.
Last Wednesday, about 300 mine workers — mostly maintenance staff — refused to go to work because a health-and-safety representative was suspended for four days because he was pushing for an investigation.
That investigation involved a worker in the mill concentrator building becoming ill from SO2 emissions from the copper dryer and being taken to hospital for treatment.
Boyce said there have been four incidents involving sulphur dioxide gas at Highland Valley in the past six months.
The plan now is to double up on monitors in the affected areas.
There’s thought that the humidity in the dryer area affects the detectors, and other gasses in the area are clouding the monitors’ ability to read for SO2, he said.
The company created a task force to look more into the situation and what’s needed to solve it on a long-term basis, he said.
But not everything has been resolved. Boyce said the employee who was suspended was brought back after one day and did not have his pay docked. But the union hasn’t received anything in writing about the suspension being wiped off the books.
The copper dryer was supposed to be phased out two years ago in favour of another system to remove moisture from the copper concentrate. However, that newer system hasn’t been working properly, he said.
“In the meantime, the copper concentrate is being dumped outside and being dried outside in another fashion,” he said. He didn’t have details about how that’s working.
There are also other areas of the mill with sulphur dioxide gas that need to be looked at for possible monitoring, he said.
Boyce said Highland Valley Copper used to have a really good safety track record. The union feels it’s been declining since the company shifted its focus to getting jobs done and producing product rather than worrying as much about health and safety.
“Overall, we’re not happy with performance at the mine for a lot of different reasons,” he said.
A spokesman for Highland Valley did not return calls from the Daily News Tuesday.