Almost eight months after water rushed through a tunnel
deep in Cameco's Cigar Lake uranium mine, the nightmares continue for one of
the three miners caught directly in the torrent.
He copes with post-traumatic stress disorder as he
supports his family with a part-time landscaping job, but the other two men are
on paid stress leaves from the mining jobs they still hold.
Michael Paquette wants to know why his livelihood was
washed away 480 metres below ground.
Within days of the Oct. 22, 2006, flood, Paquette was laid
off along with about 100 workers who were under contract at the site with
Mudjatik Thyssen Mining (MTM). Water shut down the workplace for most of the
MTM employees at Cigar Lake. The two other men, both veteran miners who were
with Paquette at the flood's frontline, were transferred to another MTM job
Following the incident, Paquette, who had worked for the
company for 19 months, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His
application for workers' compensation was denied.
By spring, he was tired of living off employment insurance
and family allowance while he fought for compensation. Paquette, whose five
children range in age from three weeks to five years, took a part-time seasonal
job with a landscaping company in Saskatoon.
The pay is significantly lower, and his hours are based on
the number of workers available, the number of contracts and the weather.
When it's wet, Paquette doesn't work.
"I went from $30 an hour to $9 an hour," he said. "I had
to take what I could find.
"It's a lousy job, but I've got to feed my kids."
According to a report from Cameco, the flood at the
multibillion-dollar mine followed underground drilling and blasting at Cigar
Lake that took place on Oct. 11. A "significantly larger span opening than was
specified in the engineered mine plan was created and unanticipated geological
structures were encountered," the report states. A drill larger than
recommended in the original engineering plan was brought in to finish the
While the mine plan called for appropriate ground support
to be installed within 72 hours of blasting, the report says "the specified
ground support . . . was not applied in a timely manner."
While a modified ground support system was prepared on
Oct. 19, the report says MTM employees noticed "potential indicators of a
problem" on Oct. 22. A supervisor, who saw "evidence of ground movement over a
large area," limited access to the area and ordered the drift filled with
"Shortly thereafter, a fall of ground occurred,
accompanied by a large inflow of water," the report says.
One of two bulkhead doors 480 m below the surface failed
to close properly, so water poured past the unsealed door. While two attempts
to seal the door failed, three MTM employees, including Paquette, were told to
put on breathing masks and sent in for a third attempt.
The other two miners did not want to speak to the media
about the incident.
When the three men arrived at the bulkhead door, Paquette
said the water level came to the top of his rubber boots. He said the three men
spent 30 minutes finding breathing equipment in the floodwater.
"There were air tanks floating around," he said. "Some of
the tanks were only half full, so we had to use those."
As Paquette sat on a large, motorized boom he used to pry
open the bulkhead doors, the other two men tried to reach behind the doors to
repair the torn seal and free any possible debris.
With the door open between 20 and 15 centimetres, Paquette
said the water rushed into the tunnel, along with debris and lumber that had
been trapped on the other side.
"Within a matter of seconds, the water was up to my lap,"
"It's like there was a devil on the other side of the
door, saying, 'I'm coming to get you.' "
One of the men was sent back to dry ground, but was swept
under the rushing water, which quickly flowed beyond the miners' escape
"He managed to roll himself against the wall," Paquette
said. "That's the only way he saved himself."
The force of the water broke one of two chains that
anchored the boom to the bulkhead doors. The breathing equipment prevented
Paquette from hearing his superior's commands, he said, and he hesitated.
He stood on the end of the boom as he watched the water
"If I would have fell, there would have been no hope for
me," he said. "Think of the fastest-flowing river you've ever seen. That's how
fast it was."
He climbed onto a set of pipes that lined the tunnel wall,
he said, and was rescued by his co-workers, who formed a human chain.
Since that day, Paquette has lived with post-traumatic
"The hardest part was waking up with my kids every day. I
had to pretend to be happy," he said. "But every day, I'm thinking, 'Cigar
Lake, Cigar Lake. I almost died, I almost died.' "
When miner Cory Braaten was killed in a mining accident at
Seabee gold mine 125 kilometres northeast of La Ronge earlier this month, it
set off more panic for Paquette.
"The very first thing that came into my head was, 'It
could have happened to me,' " he said.
While he has approached a lawyer about his case, Paquette
said he's not looking for a huge settlement.
He received a thank-you letter from Cameco, but he'd like
something that could help feed his family. Before the flood, he was making
about $75,000 a year. He received $3,000 when he was laid off and his
counselling is being paid for, but he believes he's entitled to compensation
for suffering and the eight months he has been unable to work.
"I'm not looking to be a millionaire," he said. "Just give
me what you owe me."
Sources confirmed that the other two men are on paid leave
from work with MTM.
For Cameco's part, a spokesperson said compensation for
employees would be the responsibility of the company that directly employs
"Generally, the way it works is that they would be dealing
with their employer on that and Cameco would be dealing with the larger issues
overall," Lyle Krahn said.
Counselling for trauma experienced while on the job is
made available to any employee through either company's employee assistance
SOME MINERS REHIRED
Meanwhile, Thyssen Mining president Rene Scheepers, who
confirmed the other two mine employees have been employed with MTM since the
flood, said Paquette was one of many people laid off following the flood. Some
of them have since been rehired.
If jobs become available, Scheepers said Paquette could be
rehired if he is the best candidate for a job.
"It's a matter of whether we have work available for the
guys or not," Scheepers said.
"He will be treated like anybody else. The selection
criteria are level of experience and skills. Michael Paquette was less
experienced, had less time on the mine than the other two, for example, and
than other people.
"But as the workforce grows again, and the need, he will
be looked at just like anybody else that's worked for us."
Given his experience in the mine, Paquette doesn't want to
work underground again.
He just wants to be compensated for the past eight
"Cigar Lake's worth $12 billion," Paquette said. "What