Vale pleaded guilty to three charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and was fined $1,050,000 Sept. 17 in the June 2011 deaths of two miners.
The company originally faced nine charges, while supervisor Keith Birnie faced six.
The remaining charges against Vale were dropped as part of the plea deal. The charges against Birnie were dropped after the Crown received information as part of company submissions, and felt there was no reasonable chance of conviction.
In addition to negotiating the plea deal, lawyers for Vale and the Crown also came up with a joint submission for an appropriate fine, which was agreed to by Justice Randall Lalande.
The company was fined $350,000 per charge. The maximum penalty for these type of charges is $500,000.
In addition to the fine, the court imposed a 25-per-cent victim fine surcharge, as required by the Provincial Offences Act. The surcharge is credited to a special provincial government fund to assist victims of crime.
The three counts Vale pleaded guilty to were:
-Failing to prevent the movement of material through an ore pass while hazardous conditions (the hangup) existed;
-Failing to maintain the drain holes at the 2,400 level of the Stobie Mine, leading to the accumulation of water, creating wet muck which then hung up;
-Failing to ensure that water, slimes and other wet material was not dumped into the ore pass at the 2,600-foot level of the mine.
Jason Chenier, 35, and Jordan Fram, 26, were killed June 8, 2011 after they were buried by an uncontrolled released of muck, sand and water from an ore pass at the 3,000-foot level.
According to the agreed statement of facts, Vale failed to take the reasonable precaution of preventing the movement of material through an ore pass while hazardous conditions existed.
“The hazardous condition in this case was the presence of a hang up in the ore pass, caused by an accumulation of wet muck,” the statement went on to say.
“In addition, drain holes had not been maintained by keeping them clear, thus allowing a buildup of water on the working level of Stobie Mine.
“Finally, Vale failed to ensure that wet muck was not dumped down the #7 Ore Pass. All of these failings contributed to the incident.”
Incidentally, 16 months after the fatal incident, a Ministry of Labour inspection at Stobie Mine determined that there were hazardous water buildups in the mine, as well as plugged drain holes and ditches, the statement of facts said.
Crown lawyers Wes Wilson and Dave McCaskill said the fines imposed in the case are precedent-setting in not only Ontario, but possibly Canada.
“There has not been a single incident of occupational health and safety prosecution where the disposition even approached this amount of fine,” Wilson told reporters after the hearing. “The largest single amount prior to this was $650,000.”
The court was filled with friends and family members of the Fram and Chenier families. Before Lalande handed down his verdict and sentence, members of the victims' families gave emotional impact statements.
Jordan Fram's mother, Wendy Fram, said the last time she saw her son, he hugged her and said “Mom, you have no idea how much I love you.” She replied “Be safe, have a good shift, I love you.”
She said the day her son died was the saddest in her life.
“It's a parent's worst nightmare,” she said.
Her husband, Brian, was a miner at Vale's Creighton Mine, and took eight months off after his son's death. He still can't bring himself to go back underground, and now works at the company's Copper Cliff Smelter warehouse.
Jordan's brother, Jesse, reminisced about how he used to play sports with his brother, as well as the bond between Jordan and his young daughter, Marley.
Months after Jordan's death, Jesse said he would call his brother's cellphone, just to hear his voice on the voicemail message.
Jason Chenier's wife, Tracy, described how excruciating it was to tell their children, then six and eight years old, that their father was never coming home.
“They're left to go through life with a daddy who only lives in their hearts and minds,” she said.
After the court hearing concluded, Wendy Fram told Northern Life her family didn't immediately want to speak about the outcome of the case.
Following the fatal incident, the company conducted an investigation, and came up with 31 recommendations, which have either been implemented or are in the process of being implemented, Vale lawyer Peter Brady said.
The United Steelworkers also conducted an investigation into the incident, and issued its own report. Brady said a number of the union's recommendations were also implemented.
He said Vale also acted to ensure compliance to the rules after the October 2012 Ministry of Labour investigation which found water buildups in the mine.
Vale was represented in court by Kelly Strong, the company's president of Ontario/UK operations.
“The deaths of Jason and Jordan have been extremely difficult for everyone involved, but no one more so than the families,” he said in a written statement issued after the conclusion of the court case.
“Although the court proceedings have now been concluded, as a company we cannot and will not ever forget what happened. We have a responsibility to the families, our employees, our company and our community – all of whom have been deeply affected – to ensure we do everything we can to prevent this or any other tragedy from occurring in our operations again.
“There is no higher priority than the safety of our people. We have concentrated significant efforts and resources on understanding what happened at Stobie Mine on June 8, 2011, and we have come very far in terms of implementing the recommendations that were made following this incident.
“This work will continue through our day-to-day work, and through the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Jordan and Jason that will take place according to provincial law. It is our intention to learn everything we can through that process when it occurs.
“We continue to put in place measures to make our plants and mines as safe as possible. Nothing we can say or do can ever turn back the clock and bring Jason and Jordan back, but we will continue to honour their memories through our unwavering focus on safety and reaching zero harm in our workplace.”
Lalande said told those gathered in the courtroom the fact the two parties were able to come to a plea deal saved the system a lot of expense and the families further uncertainty.
While no fine will compensate for what the families have been through, he said he thinks the penalty imposed on Vale sends a message to industry that “nothing should trump safety.”
The judge expressed his sympathy to the families on behalf of the court.
“It was very touching to hear family members speak,” he said.