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Fire in Saskatchewan potash mine 'not a big deal,' officials say

Reports of smoke which caused nearly four dozen miners to take refuge in sealed-off areas of a Saskatchewan potash mine Thursday turned out to be "not a big deal," a mine official said.

Gary Phillips, general manager of Potash Corp.'s Cory mine near Saskatoon, said smoke and a minor fire triggered an alarm and forced 47 workers to seek shelter in four different refuge stations underground.

But rescue crews who entered the mine found no traces of lingering smoke or dangerous gases. They did find a loader with a charred hood and figure that was the source of the smoke.

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"It looks like it was a very small fire," Mr. Phillips said. "It's a non-event, which is a good thing."

Most workers returned to the surface late Thursday afternoon, but some decided to stay underground and finish their shifts.

Everyone was accounted for and there were no reports of any injuries.

"It's the kind of thing where you get tired of sitting on the bench," Mr. Phillips said. "It's boring, it's hot, it's not a great place to be, but they won't be in there very long."

The last major potash mine fire in Saskatchewan happened in January 2006 at the Mosaic mine near Esterhazy.

Esterhazy has been heralded as a textbook example of mine rescue. When heat from a cutting torch ignited a fire in some plastic piping, the 72 miners on shift were able to retreat to refuge rooms sealed off from the toxic smoke.

It took 30 hours, but all of them were brought to the surface without so much as a cough, according to company officials.

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Mr. Phillips said Esterhazy sprang to his mind Thursday.

"You always worry, is this going to be a big one?," he said. "The fire at Esterhazy was one example where people can be underground for a long period of time. You always hope that it is not going to be, but you hope it is going to be the same kind of outcome."

Potash is used chiefly as a fertilizer or as an ingredient in industrial chemicals and soap.

According to the company's website, Potash Corp. is the world's largest fertilizer enterprise.

The Cory mine employs about 230 workers.

The mine has an annual capacity of 1.36 million tonnes of potassium chloride which is used in water softeners and ice-melting products.

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