Albert McLean and Claude White
Fired Without Severance Pay
But May Keep Their Pensions
Nova Scotia to Act
on Westray Report
By Stephen Thorne
This article appeared in
Vancouver, Friday, 19 December 1997
STELLARTON, N.S. (CP) — The Westray story may be far from over.
The Nova Scotia government could be in for a protracted lawsuit after apologizing for the underground explosion that killed 26 miners and promising to act on all 74 recommendations of a royal commission report, right down to the firings of two mine inspectors who played pivotal roles in the tragedy.
"The entire system of the day failed the miners, their families and all Nova Scotians on May 9, 1992," the day the coal mine exploded, Public Works Minister Don Downe said Thursday.
"On behalf of the province, I officially apologize for any role government may have played. We are deeply sorry for the Westray disaster. It never should have happened. While we can't change the past, we can change the future."
Carefully Chosen Words
Downe said the province acknowledges no legal responsibility by apologizing. Members of the dead miners' families expressed suspicions about his carefully chosen words and said they'll sue for compensation.
"They leave us no choice," widow Isabel Gillis said after Downe's news conference at an industry museum within sight of the mine.
"What they said in the meeting at the hotel (Thursday) morning is quite different from what the man said in front of us here."
But the families could not argue with the fact the province wasted no time acting on the report by Justice Peter Richard of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, which never addressed the compensation issue.
The Labor Department summoned inspectors Albert McLean and Claude White at 9:45am Thursday and fired them without severance.
The pair noted problems at Westray but did nothing about them before a spark triggered the methane fire and coal-dust explosion.
"The public service must be accountable to the people they serve," said Downe. "When it comes to administering laws, public interest must come before all else."
Richard recommended the inspectors be dismissed in his December 1 report, saying their incompetence and subsequent testimony "must surely have destroyed any confidence (Nova Scotians) might have had in the ... safety inspectorate."
Three other government bureaucrats were suspended pending an independent review.
Families of the dead miners were generally pleased with the response but criticized it for lack of detail on critical issues, namely whether McLean and White will receive pensions.
Some said they'll proceed with a lawsuit that has sat dormant since it was filed a year after the blast.
"They have given us no direct response," said lawyer Ray Wagner. "We're disappointed with the fact we're going home empty-handed."
Government ministers have consulted with representatives of labor and families since Richard blasted bureaucrats and mine managers, calling the disaster predictable and preventable.
The government promises to address the issue of severance for almost 100 surviving Westray miners who lost their jobs when the colliery shut down after the disaster.
It said the mine site in Plymouth, N.S., will be cleaned up, the silos that serve as reminders of the tragedy will be dismantled and the property will be turned over to the community.
Mine assets, worth between $1 million and $5 million, will be sold, with the proceeds likely going toward the miners' severance fund.
Ministerial Performance Bordered on the Unethical
The government summarizes each recommendation and lays out its response. Among them:
- The province will develop "clear guidelines for ministerial responsibility" after the inquiry report noted the performances of some ministers, notably the former Tory industry minister Don Cameron, premier at the time of the explosion, bordered on the unethical.
- Ottawa and the province are discussing shared responsibility for mine inspections.
- The province has asked Ottawa to look into Criminal Code changes that would make corporate officials more accountable for safety after what Richard described as a ruthless and deceitful regime at Westray.
Two mine managers still face trial on criminal charges.
Go To: Westray Scrapbook Fifty clippings about the Westray coal mine disaster
Go to: Main Westray Coal Mine Disaster page
Go to: Westray Public Inquiry online transcript of testimony
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First uploaded to the WWW: 1997 December 20