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When Coal Was King
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The Balmer Mine Disaster

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By John Kinnear

According to Deputy Chief Inspector R. B. Bonar, it travelled 4,400 feet in just three seconds, the equivalent of 996 miles per hour. That was the speed of the blast as it hit. the twenty-two coal miners entering the Balmer North mine at Michel on 3 April, 1967. With the blast came all sorts of debris from deep inside the mine. Power cables, timbers, chunks of coal and rock, conveyor belting and a toxic cloud of smoke and gases belched from the deadly entry and rolled out across the Michel Creek valley. Flying debris from the wooden structures outside the mine entrance hit the conductors of the 66,000-volt power line immediately below the mine. The time of the blast was exactly 3:59 p.m.—a fact determined by the electrical fault that was registered at the Elko generating station when the debris hit the power line. The Michel miners just starting afternoon shift had literally climbed into the wrong end of a gun barrel and fate had pulled the trigger at the other end.

This disaster struck at the Michel-Natal-Sparwood community only nine days after a tragic car crash had taken the lives of seven local residents. An already numbed community was then forced to endure the pain that Coal Creek, Springhill, Hillcrest, Nanaimo, Bellevue and a host of other mining communities had suffered in the past. It was the event that every mother or wife of a coal miner lived in dread of: the day when the miner does not come home from the mine. Usually the mines claimed their victims one or two at a time—a cave-in here, a bump there. Always hidden in the back of the minds of the miners and their families was the thought that it had been a while since the last accident and the question of who would be claimed next.

Balmer North had opened just a year earlier and was one of a new generation of coal mines, using powerful "mechanical miners" capable of cutting ten tons of coal in sixty seconds. The mechanization was part of a modern approach to mining that was slowly replacing the conventional miner and his air pick with new-age coal-cutting machines and conveyor belts. While some were surprised that such a loss of life could occur in a modern mine like Balmer, others were not. There had been complaints there about dangerous dust levels despite rock dusting, a process which is supposed to render the coal dust incombustible. While testing of rock dusted zones revealed that those areas had been neutralized, there was an inherent problem in transporting the coal. Because of the friability and dustiness of the coal being carried by conveyor belt, a ready source of coal dust was always present in the belt roadways despite the rock dusting.

As in most western Canadian coal mines, there was also the threat of a gas build-up where ventilation could not dissipate it properly. Underground coal mining usually involves a complicated ventilation plan where fresh air is directed past inactive areas to the active ones. Air is forced up and down, over and under passageways and sometimes, as at Balmer, additional smaller fans inside are required to pull the air into the "face" where the men are working. With mechanical miners, coal is mined so fast that gas released from the coal can build up rather quickly. The official opinion offered later by R. B. Bonar, the Deputy Chief Inspector of Mines was that "the short-circuiting of the air from No. 1 entry to the lower roads wherein the continuous miner and shuttle car were working allowed gas to accumulate in the gob area." (The gob is a mining term that refers to a pillared area that has caved in as the mining retreats away from it.)

Bonar went on to say that in all probability a fall of rock in the gob caused an incendiary spark or sparks that ignited the gas in the gob, which in turn initiated the coal-dust explosion. Dusty, gassy mines can indeed be a lot like a loaded shotgun. With one spark (the hammer strikes the bullet), the gas ignites (the bullet's primer explodes), the gas flares and causes the coal dust to explode (the gunpowder goes off) and a horrendous flash rips through the mine carrying all sorts of debris with it (the bullet charges down the barrel). The Forgotten Side of the Border British Columbia's Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass

This article titled "The Balmer Mine Disaster of 1967" by John Kinnear is reprinted from The Forgotten Side of the Border: British Columbia's Elk Valley and the Crowsnest Pass, edited by Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller (Kamloops, BC: Plateau Press, 1998). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium thanks the author and publisher for permission to reprint this material.

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