The Smug Visage of Clifford Frame
Hovers Over the Westray Disaster
Like a Cloud of $100 Cigar Smoke.
More Than Anyone, He Bears Responsibility.

Westray Inquiry Commission Report

Management Failed,
the Inspectorate Failed,
and the Mine Blew Up

By Parker Barss-Donham

This article appeared in
The Sunday Daily News
Halifax, Sunday, 7 December 1997

For what it's worth, Justice Peter Richard's report on the Westray disaster easily surpasses the modest expectations I held out for it.

His account of the proximate causes of the explosion that wrecked the mine may have been predictable, but it was admirably workmanlike in detail and comprehensiveness. His findings should prove useful to whoever gets saddled with the task of dragging the province's occupational health and safety inspectorate into the Twenty-first Century.

His account of the indirect causes – the role played by management, politicians, and bureaucrats – uses tougher language than anyone who witnessed the commission's unpromising beginnings had reason to expect.

His pithiest summary of what went wrong – "Management failed, the inspectorate failed, and the mine blew up" – comes in two syllables under a haiku.

He recounts "a story incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and of cynical indifference," with little attempt to disguise his own outrage at the behavior of those responsible.

He details a pattern of intimidation that drove miners, even those who knew better, to repress well-grounded fears for their lives and safety out of concern for their wives and children -- and the paychecks they relied upon. In Pictou County, as in so many parts of the Maritimes, a job is not a thing to trifle with.

There are some gaps however. The list of pejoratives that instantly became the report's symbolic precis – "a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect" – omits the word greed.

Yet no one can read how Curragh CEO Clifford Frame ruthlessly badgered government officials to put more public money into Westray (which would thereby require less of his own) without concluding that avarice lay at the root of the events that followed.

Richard gave this dark underbelly of capitalism short shrift. He declined the families' request for a forensic audit to determine where the money went, how it was spent, who might have profited from the mine that killed 26 men. And he abandoned attempts to force Frame and his henchmen to testify.

Missing, too, is any searching analysis of two great questions of public policy that emerge from the dreadful details in Richard's report. Many Nova Scotians are desperate for employment. The politicians they elect sometimes display unseemly eagerness to attract industrial employers.

How can we give workers the confidence to insist upon their own safety in the face of employers who would compromise it? And how can we keep politicians from going overboard in their desire to accommodate corporations that might provide jobs for their constituents?

Richard takes a stab at the second question. Citing former Premier Donald Cameron's lapses of prudence in pursuit of Westray, he undertakes a detailed discussion of ministerial responsibility. He urges the province to follow Westminster's lead and develop formal guidelines for ministerial behavior, with immersion courses for every new minister.

It's a useful suggestion, but a much more thorough discussion of the political failures at Westray – and more critical analysis of testimony from former Premier John Buchanan and and former Public Works Minister Elmer MacKay – would have been welcome.

Aside from insisting on competent inspectors that do their job, the report will do little to keep workers from feeling and acting like supplicants.

Richard offered an intriguing explanation for his decision to abandon the pursuit of reluctant witnesses like Frame, Curragh vice-president Marvin Pelly, mine manager Gerald Phillips, and underground manager Roger Parry.

He pointed out that legal challenges to his subpoenas could take up to two years to resolve. He didn't want to subject the dead miners' families, who have already waited five and a half years for his findings, to a further delay.

But what about issuing an interim report, with an addendum to follow when and if he succeeds in bringing the Curragh bigwigs to heel? Richard said he considered but rejected that option, partly because of the cost involved, and partly because it would give Frame and the others an unfair chance to testify in rebuttal to his findings.

Seductive as it is, this argument fails to persuade.

The smug visage of Clifford Frame hovers over the Westray disaster like a cloud of $100 cigar smoke. More than anyone, he bears responsibility for the murderous fate that befell Westray's 26 miners. Harry Rogers, former deputy minister of Regional Economic Expansion, describes Frame as "the most offensive person I have ever met in business or in government."

In his "abrasive and abusive" campaign to wheedle government cash for a project too risky to entrust with his own money, his tolerance of bully tactics against miners who voiced fear for their safety, his foul appearance at the funeral, his attempt to hold widows and orphans hostage to a lucrative surface coal concession, and his contempt for the commission's authority, viagra naturale erboristeria Frame personifies the evil man can visit upon fellow man.

Richard's decision means Frame will forever escape even the modest accountability that would come from having to answer tough questions in public under oath. That harks back the way courts and legislatures inevitably sided with robber-baron mine owners in the first decades of this century. It's not good enough.

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First uploaded to the WWW:   1997 December 19