By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
The Free Press (Fernie, B.C.)
June 28, 1995

Eight Fording River mine workers are still in the dark about why they became sick on the job last November, because a set of medical tests came back inconclusive June 15.

While an eye-examination report states the miners were exposed to something at the job site that caused eye irritation, the cause of the symptoms could not be determined with certainty.

But the report suggests the workers’ eye irritation could be consistent with exposure to particulate matter, a chemical irritant or ultraviolet light.

A respiratory-health report could not attribute any of the workers’ breathing problems to a particular on-the-job source once smoking, job history and other factors were taken into account.

And blood tests for bone marrow, liver and kidney function showed no problems. But the report did say the “inhaled contaminant” was likely water soluble and affected the upper airways of the workers.

Late last November, the miners began suffering from a variety of as-yet unexplained symptoms including irritated eyes, peeling skin and breathing problems. The symptoms began while the employees were working in the mine’s south pit.

The company conducted an extensive investigation, including independent site-testing, and took the eight workers to Calgary for medical testing May 12-13.

Fording loss-control administrator Roy Green said the medical tests — conducted by doctors Robert L. Cowie, Kenneth J. Corbet and Patrick Wyse — came up with few answers.

“We don’t have anything concrete at this time at all,” Green said in an interview June 22.

“They found nothing to indicate there was a contamination except from the reports the employees gave.”

As for the miners, Green said, “They were found to be basically okay,” and their test results were consistent with numerous studies of career miners’ health.

But the workers’ local union leader says that while he accepts the validity of the medical reports, he disagrees with Green’s interpretation of them.

In an interview June 22, Don Takala said the eye doctor’s report stated the miners were “quite clearly” exposed on the job site to some agent that caused eye irritation.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt there was an exposure at the mine site.”

Takala also said he believed the medical testing done — x-rays, lung-function and blood-pressure tests, and blood samples — was not extensive enough.

And he’s critical of the company for not conducting emission tests on the coal-dryer stacks. He believes the stack emissions may have been the source of the workers’ symptoms.

“I feel if there’s nothing there to hide, allow the samples to be taken.”

But Fording River’s superintendent of employee relations says stack-emission tests are unnecessary because the stacks were tested in 1989, 1990 and 1993, and the results showed all emissions were well below legislated levels.

“Emissions have been discounted as a source of contamination,” Denis Lehoux said June 26.

And Lehoux discounted the possibility that emission levels could have changed between the testing in 1993 and the onset of the workers’ symptoms in 1994.

“That stack is 1.5 miles from the south pit,” he said. “The chance of contamination occurring from the stacks is nil.”

And with regard to the extensiveness of the medical tests, Lehoux said the union was involved in the decision to send the workers for testing, knew what testing would be done and had no complaints at the time.

Green said the investigation into the workers’ symptoms will continue.

Meanwhile, one of the workers who came down with symptoms is off work and recovering slowly.

Kevin Roebuck went off work about five weeks ago and is receiving about $540 per week in sickness-and-accident insurance benefits through a program in the union’s collective agreement.

In an interview June 25, Roebuck said his health began to improve about a week after he stopped working.

His headaches are almost gone, and his chest pains have eased, he said.

But his eyes are still light- and wind-sensitive and suffer from low tearing.

As for his medical tests, Roebuck said his lung-function and x-ray tests came out normal for a person who smokes.

“I’d like to find out what the hell’s been getting us out there so it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

He expects to return to work in about four weeks.