Empty Apology

Two Officials Fired, Three Suspended,
in Westray Disaster

Officials Fired in Westray Disaster
Nova Scotia Accepts Inquiry's Recommendations

By Graeme Hamilton

This article appeared in
The Ottawa Citizen
Friday, 19 December 1997

STELLARTON, N.S. — For 5½ years, the twin concrete silos of the Westray coal mine have loomed over the landscape here as an inescapable reminder of the explosion that killed 26 men.

In its most sweeping response since the May 9, 1992, disaster, the Nova Scotia government yesterday announced actions ranging from the symbolic demolition of the silos to the firing of two mine inspectors accused of incompetence in the Westray affair.

"Many people — mine managers, public servants, politicians — could have done better," Nova Scotia Transportation and Public Works Minister Don Downe said. "On behalf of the province of Nova Scotia, I officially apologize for any role government may have played."

Mr. Downe, who headed a cabinet committee formed to act on the damning December 1 public inquiry report on Westray, said the government accepts each of the inquiry's 74 recommendations.

That report, by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Peter Richard, called the methane and coal-dust explosion predictable and preventable. Judge Richard blamed it on a combination of corporate ruthlessness and regulatory incompetence.

The government was careful yesterday to avoid accepting any legal responsibility, and it did not offer compensation to victims' families, many of whom have lawsuits related to the accident pending.

Some victims' family members said they were surprised the government went as far as it did.

"It's far more than I expected," said Allen Martin, whose brother Glenn was killed at Westray. "After 5½ years of fighting, now it seems like things are going our way."

Kenton Teasdale, who lost his son-in-law Myles Gillis in the mine, said the plan to level Westray, seal the mine-shafts and turn the site over to the community is particularly important to the families.

"They've gone on with life with that constant reminder in their background," he said. "In that sense it's going to be a huge relief for them to see some sort of useful, honourable function for that."

Westray assets remaining at the site — valued at between $1 million and $5 million — will be sold and part of the proceeds will be used to pay severance to the surviving miners who were left jobless, Mr. Downe said.

The government committee's response admonishes politicians: "Never let the rule be jobs at any cost. Never be blinded by pure politics."

Empty Apology

But Isabel Gillis, widow of Myles Gillis, said she was disappointed by the government's intransigence.

"They apologize, but in the same breath they say, 'We're not responsible,' so their apology's empty," she said. "Nobody wants closure more than the families, and they're showing that we're in for another fight."

Twenty-three families are suing the province, the federal government and the mine's owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for damages totalling $30 million. Raymond Wagner, the lawyer representing 18 of the families, said he had expected the government to announce a compensation package for the families.

Family members and surviving miners also said they had hoped the government would announce a plan to recover the bodies of 11 men who remain buried deep in the mine.

Provincial Labour Department employees Claude White and Albert McLean, who Judge Richard singled out for their "unacceptable performance," were fired yesterday morning. Three employees of the Natural Resources Department criticized in the report have been suspended.

The government will commission outside reviews of the province's occupational health and safety division and Natural Resources Department to ensure competency and adequate training. It promised to tighten mining regulations and improve health and safety in all workplaces.

David Roberts, a lawyer who represented the United Steelworkers of America before the inquiry, said the government's actions make another Westray a lot less likely. "The message is coming through that regulators have to be more assertive in carrying out their public responsibilities or they will be held accountable," he said.

Go To:   Westray Scrapbook Fifty clippings about the Westray coal mine disaster
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First uploaded to the WWW:   1997 December 20