Westray's Grim Truth

Incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, and deceit
Ruthlessness, cover-up, apathy, expediency, and cynical indifference

Westray's Grim Truth

Like Something Out of a Medieval Novel

This editorial appeared in
The Toronto Star
Tuesday, 2 December 1997

It takes a strong stomach to plow through Mr. Justice Peter Richard's scathing report on the explosion May 9, 1992, at Nova Scotia's Westray coal mine. Corporate "disdain for safety," married to inept provincial supervision, contributed to 26 men dying that day. "Management failed, the inspectorate failed, and the mine blew up." Few tragedies on this scale have been more predictable, or preventable.

Westray's owner, Clifford Frame, is described in the report as "uncompromising and abusive." Conditions at the mine read like something out of a medieval novel. Mine managers were "aggressive and authoritarian," had iffy qualifications, and a "derelict attitude towards safety." Production came first. Workers were at "extreme risk." Mismanagement, neglect, and incompetence" reigned.

And Nova Scotia's politicians – including former premiers John Buchanan and Donald Cameron – were too busy wooing mining jobs to worry about potential bombs. As ministers of the crown, they had an "imperfect understanding of the nature of their responsibilities" when the Westray mine project was first being developed, Richard notes, although there's no suggestion that they knew of subsequent safety infractions.

However, provincial inspection was a bad joke. "Apathy and complaisance" infected the labour ministry, and "wilful blindness" the natural resources ministry. Both were responsible for mine safety.

"The Westray story is a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and of cynical indifference," Richard said.

It's incredible, given Westray's $85 million loan guarantee from the Mulroney government, plus Nova Scotia's $12 million loan/purchase order for 4 million tonnes of coal, that the mine's viability as a safe operation wasn't thoroughly probed by the politicians before writing the cheques.

Richard carefully refrains from heaping all the blame for the fatal explosion on one or two individuals, or tracing its cause to a single blunder. But his report is damning enough to leave Nova Scotia's current government, along with the RCMP and lawyers for the dead miners' families, weighing more regulatory changes, criminal charges, and civil suits.

Public policy must begin with Richard's 74 technical recommendations to make mining safer. He calls for far tighter regulatory scrutiny, tougher guidelines on complete accountability for workplace safety, beefed-up safety training and earlier evacuation of workers if conditions grow unsafe. The wonder is that recommendations as basic as these still need to be made, five years after the tragedy.

Indeed, the most sickening aspect of the Westray disaster is that no one in authority could be bothered to prevent it. Miners knew that the pit was a potential bomb. No one cared. So good men gambled their lives, a mile underground, to put bread on the family table. That this should occur, in Canada, in the 1990s, is hard to believe.

Go To:   Westray Scrapbook Fifty clippings about the Westray coal mine disaster
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