Never Let the Risks Outweigh the Benefits

The Westray disaster had major ramifications for the Yukon...

Never Let the Risks
Outweigh the Benefits

Never Again

by Peter Lesniak

This editorial appeared in
Yukon News
Whitehorse, Friday, 5 December 1997

Never again.

We must do everything we can to ensure that never again is there another mining disaster in Canada like Westray.

Twenty-six men died of burns or suffocation or both after a highly volatile brew of methane gas and coal dust exploded deep underground at the Nova Scotia mine in 1992.

Eleven of their bodies were never recovered and the mine remains closed to this day, despite the region's rampant jobless rate.

But the miners were not killed by lethal levels of methane gas and coal dust alone.

Equally culpable were the company bosses and government bureaucrats who turned a blind eye to the many problems at the mine, which was heavily subsidized by the federal and provincial governments.

The Westray story need not have happened if provincial mining inspectors had forced the mine's managers to obey orders to install proper ventilation systems to prevent the build up of methane gas and to clean up the deep drifts of coal dust.

The man who headed the public inquiry into the blast concluded "a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect" caused this tragedy.

In his 751-page, $5-million report tabled this week, Justice Peter Richard listed no fewer than 27 problems at the mine, which employed about 160 people.

These included things like inadequate ventilation, to not enough methane-detection devices, to "an appalling" lack of safety training for the miners.

He sharply criticized Westray's management, namely mine owner Clifford Frame, mine manager Gerald Phillips and underground manager Roger Parry.

Both Phillips and Parry currently face charges of criminal negligence and manslaughter for failing todeal with the mine's problems.

Richard's report also makes 74 recommendations, including urging the Nova Scotia government to overhaul its departments of Natural Resources and Labor.

This disaster had major ramifications for the Yukon, where Frame's former company, Curragh Resources Ltd., also owned the lead, zinc and silver mine and mill at Faro, the territory's largest private-sector employer.

The company fell into receivership soon after the disaster, throwing about 1,000 Yukoners out of work.

To this day, the Faro mine continues to stagger from crisis to crisis in the face of fluctuating metal prices and declining ore reserves.

But you can add "self-dealing, selective enforcement and conflict of interest" to the above list of political sins at Westray, says our national newspaper.

Because the operation was propped up by $100 million of public money, it had to be kept running "despite questions about economic viability and safety," the paper chides in an editorial.

"In hindsight, what happened was about what you would have expected; it was all depressingly predictable...

"Safety's backers were playing on an understaffed, unsupported team, and not surprisingly, they lost."

This is not a unique story, the paper continues in a vein of thought that's highly critical of governments giving subsidies of any kind to industry or business.

"What economists like to call externalities – safety, health, the environment – have a habit of getting the short end of the stick in the politicized economy of Atlantic Canada."

Actually, the same can be said of most major economic activities conducted in the hinterlands.

Even here in the Yukon, each and every government is under tremendous pressure to create jobs, jobs, jobs, regardless of both the fiscal and physical consequences.

(The McDonald government's surprising support of the petroleum exploration work currently being done by Northern Cross in the critical winter feeding grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd is a perfect example of this political tightrope walking.)

"Instead of acting like an impartial regulator, willing to impose penalties and costs upon an unsafe mine operator, costs that might even have driven the mine out of business, the (Nova Scotia) government hesitated, trapped by conflicting agendas," says The Globe.

"Businesses can't be properly regulated by government – and for environmental and health reasons they must be – if that government is in bed with them."

But almost all companies, even those without a single cent of government backing, can threaten to shut down their operations and lay off their workers if they need to wring concessions from governments to feed their bottom line.

And if the employer is powerful or persuasive enough, it manages, more often than not, to get what it wants from government.

So let's all remember that the next time we get all excited about some big company coming here to open up a new operation.

Meanwhile, here's a bit more to think about. It comes from Calculated Risk: Greed, Politics, and the Westray Tragedy, Dean Jobb's excellent book about Canada's worst mining disaster since 1958.

"Although the mine had been in operation a scant eight months, it had a long and controversial history.

"It was the focus of a bitter political battle that inflamed regional rivalries within Nova Scotia.

"The mine was built to take coal from a seam with a reputation as one of the gassiest and most dangerous in the world.

"There were repeated warnings, in public and private, that the project faced serious technical and safety hurdles, and might well prove a financial failure.

"In the headlong rush to bring Westray into production, the warnings were either ignored or dismissed as partisan troublemaking.

"The mine opened in the fall of 1991, just as the politicians and mine officials promised it would, but it never lived up to the high expectations of its promoters.

"Safety took a back seat as the company desperately tried to fulfil its coal-supply contracts.

"It was a recipe for disaster..."

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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