Westray- Here’s what happened
Martin O'Malley, CBC News Online | May 9, 2002
“The Westray story is a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect,” said Mr. Justice Peter Richard in his report on the explosion and fire at the coal mine in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, that killed 26 miners on May 9, 1992.
Here’s what happened:
In July 1991, Liberal MLA Bernie Boudreau sent a letter to Nova Scotia Labour Minister Leroy Legere warning that the new Westray coal mine scheduled to open in two months near Stellarton in Pictou County “is potentially one of the most dangerous in the world.”
On Sept. 11, 1991, 500 guests attended the
official opening of the Westray mine. The local
member of Parliament, Revenue Minister Elmer
MacKay, arrived from Ottawa to cut the ribbon
opening the new coal mine that promised 300
badly needed jobs that would last at least 15
On March 9, 1992, Mike Piché, an organizer for the United Steelworkers of America, said in a report on safety in the mine: “I strongly feel there will be someone killed in the near future.”
Two months later, on May 9, 1992, at 5:18 a.m., a spark deep in the southeast section of the mine ignited an invisible cloud of methane gas, triggering a massive explosion that trapped and killed 26 miners. The force of the blast shattered windows and shook homes in nearby Stellarton and New Glasgow.
Coal mining has always been dangerous work. Between 1838 and 1950, the peak years of coal mining in Pictou County, 246 miners were killed in similar methane-and-coal-dust explosions, many of them working the rich Foord seam that became part of the Westray operation. Between 1866 and 1972, another 330 miners were killed in other accidents – mangled in machinery, buried under stone, squashed in coal-car collisions.
The tragedy of Westray goes far beyond a simple, ghastly accident. It involved corporate greed, bureaucratic bungling and government incompetence of the highest order. The title of Mr. Justice Richard’s report on the tragedy – the inquiry took five years and cost nearly $5 million – says it all: The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster.
Richard’s report zeroed in on Curragh Resources Inc., the private company that managed the coal mine, and various government inspectors who ignored glaring safety abuses, among them:
Inadequate ventilation design and maintenance that failed to keep methane and coal dust at safe levels;
Unauthorized mine layout, forcing miners to work risky tunnels to get the coal out faster;
Methane detectors were disconnected because frequent alarms, signalling dangerous concentrations of methane, interrupted coal production;
Procedures to “stonedust” coal to render it
non-explosive were done only sporadically,
usually before inspections;
An “appalling lack of safety training and indoctrination” of miners.
From the start, the mandate of the Westray operation was clear: get the mine running, get the coal out, sell it quickly.
Toronto-based Curragh Resources Inc. announced the creation of the Westray mine in the village of Plymouth in Pictou County on Sept. 1, 1988, five days before the provincial election in Nova Scotia. The coal mine was described as a $127-million operation, which would create 300 new jobs in the area. The next day the Nova Scotia government promised to contribute a $12-million loan to the mine.
A week later, Nova Scotia Power Corp. announced a deal to buy 700,000 tons of coal a year for 15 years at a price of $60 to $74 a ton. The reserves of coal at the Westray mine were estimated at 45 million tons. Another week later, the Bank of Nova Scotia kicked in a $100-million loan to the mine operation, with the federal government guaranteeing 85 per cent of it.
The facilities at Westray were supposed to be state of the art. The coal was there in abundance, the buyers were waiting for it, big loans were guaranteed by governments – everything was in place except some nagging concerns from workers that it was a dangerous mine and safety precautions were lax.
Looking back on the tragedy, Judge Richard commented: “A safe workplace demands a responsible and conscientious commitment from management – from the Chief Executive Officer down. Such a commitment was sadly lacking at the Westray mine.
“Since there was no discernible safety ethic, including a training program and a management safety mentality, there could be no continuum of responsible safety practice within that workplace. Complacency seemed to be the prevailing attitude at Westray – which at times regressed to a heedless disregard for the most fundamental safety imperatives.
“As I stated in the report, compliance with safety regulations was the clear duty of Westray management. To insure that this duty was undertaken and fulfilled by management was the legislated duty of the inspectorate. Management failed, the inspectorate failed, and the mine blew up.”
The Westray miners not killed in the blast, 117 of them, were awarded severance pay for 12 weeks, which came to $1.2 million. Individual cheques to the miners ranged from $6,626 to $12,367. A $30-million lawsuit was launched against the province of Nova Scotia by families of the dead miners, but Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court threw it out, ruling that the province was protected from lawsuits under the Workers Compensation Act.
Curragh Resources Inc. initially was charged with 52 non-criminal counts of operating an unsafe mine. The company went bankrupt in 1993. The charges then were dropped after a Nova Scotia judge criticized the way in which they were laid. The case went back to trial, was dismissed again, then the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial.
Charges of criminal negligence and manslaughter had been laid against mine managers Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, but these came to nothing when the Crown stayed proceeding, saying there was not enough evidence to ensure a conviction.
Clifford Frame, founder and chief executive officer of Curragh Resources Inc., refused to testify at the Richard Inquiry, as did Marvin Pelley, former president of Westray. The inquiry had no federal powers, which meant subpoenas could not be enforced outside of Nova Scotia, leaving company officials safe in their Toronto headquarters.
Ten years later, the province is selling off what’s left of the Westray operation, hoping to raise money for the families of the miners. The remains of Westray have been knocked down, and soon will be covered and seeded to grass, entombing the 11 miners whose bodies never made it up from the doomed mine.