Bureaucats and Bosses Blamed
for Westray Mine Deaths

Incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling,
deceit, ruthlessness, coverup, apathy

Bureaucats, Bosses Blamed for Mine Deaths

Incompetence, Mismanagement,
Bureaucratic Bungling, Deceit,
Ruthlessness, Coverup, Apathy

It's like the blood inquiry and the Somalia inquiry.
When they get close to the scum at the top,
it seems to all fade away.

By Graeme Hamilton

This article appeared in
The Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday, 2 December 1997

STELLARTON, N.S. – A deadly mix of corporate ruthlessness and regulatory incompetence made the Westray coal mine "an accident waiting to happen" before an explosion killed 26 men, a provincial inquiry has found.

"It is a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of coverup, of apathy, of expediency and of cynical indifference," Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Peter Richard wrote in his long-awaited report, published yesterday.

Judge Richard concluded that the explosion that ripped through the underground mine on May 9, 1992 was entirely preventable, subtitling his 750-page report A Predictable Path to Disaster. He had harsh words for the mine's managers and executives, the provincial bureaucrats charged with enforcing safety regulations and the politicians who blindly supported the risky venture.

Family members of the victims were relieved that Judge Richard rejected the argument that the miners caused the blast. Former Nova Scotia premier Donald Cameron and senior officials of the mine developer, Curragh Resources Inc., had blamed the explosion on miners who tampered with methane monitors.

Judge Richard acknowledged that miners were guilty of "many dangerous and foolhardy practices" in the days leading up to the explosion. But he stressed that they were reacting to management pressure for increased production. In the end, it wasn't the tampering that caused the explosion but "a sad litany" of problems, including poor design, inadequate ventilation and non-existent safety training.

Genesta Halloran, who lost her husband, John Halloran, in the explosion, called the $5-million inquiry's conclusions "sort of a good Christmas present, as long as they can tell us that this was preventable, that it wasn't the miners' fault."

But the families and surviving miners who attended yesterday's news conference said the Westray saga is far from over.

Colleen Bell, whose brother, Larry Bell, was killed at Westray, vowed to hound politicians until the bureaucrats who bungled Westray are made to pay. "I would like to see all of their pensions ripped right from under them," she told reporters, adding: "Don't you worry. This report will not sit on the shelf and get dusty."

She said she is looking forward to seeing mine managers Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, who face manslaughter and criminal negligence charges, stand trial.

The province's Liberal government has promised a response before Christmas to the report and families' demands for compensation. Nova Scotia's transportation and public works minister, Don Downe, didn't waste any time before blaming the Tory administration in power at the time of the disaster.

"The government of the day could have resolved this problem," said Mr. Downe, chairman of a cabinet committee reviewing the report. "We want to make sure that as an administration we'll be doing everything in our power to make sure another Westray never happens again."

Judge Richard describes an unfathomable disregard for workers' safety, condemning the "cavalier attitude" of mine management and the "hands-off" approach of provincial regulators.

He concludes that primary responsibility for safety at Westray lay with the mine's management.

"Westray management, starting with the chief executive officer (Clifford Frame), was required by law, by good business practice and by good conscience to design and operate the Westray mine safely," he writes.

But driven by production concerns, the company failed to properly train its workers and ignored warning signs. The report concludes that management was well aware that coal-dust accumulations and methane levels underground were hazardous.

"Indeed, management at Westray displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as the wimps in the organization," Judge Richard says.

Faced with overwhelming evidence that Westray was unsafe, provincial Department of Labour mine inspectors reacted with "apathy and complaisance," the report adds.

Inspector Albert McLean finally ordered the mine's managers to clean up accumulated coal dust on April 29, 1992. But he failed to check whether his order had been followed on his next visit, May 6 – three days before the explosion.

The explosion resulted when a spark from heavy mining machinery ignited high levels of methane, which in turn fuelled a coal-dust explosion that sped through the mine, killing all miners underground in a matter of seconds. Rescuers recovered 15 bodies, but 11 men remain entombed deep underground.

Judge Richard criticizes the "unacceptable performance" of Mr. McLean and his superior, Claude White. He recommends the two men, who remain employed in the Labour Department's occupational health and safety division, "be removed from any function relating to safety inspection or regulation."

The province's responsibility extends to the Department of Natural Resources, which Judge Richard accuses of "willful blindness" in its approval of the Westray mine. The department ignored the advice of one of its own geologists that more study was needed to ensure the area could be safely mined.

"The evidence of the public servants of the Department of Natural Resources is replete with examples of neglect of duties, submissiveness to Westray and just plain apathy," he writes.

Judge Richard concludes that the controversial mining project went ahead thanks to the "unwavering support" of the provincial government and the deep pockets of the federal and provincial governments, which together committed a total of more than $100 million.

He singles out Mr. Cameron, who was industry minister before becoming premier, for criticism. Mr. Cameron's "exuberance and determination" to bring jobs to a corner of the province he represented "may have clouded his judgment and prompted him to gloss over negative aspects," Judge Richard says.

What's more, Mr. Cameron's aggressive support of the project may have unintentionally sent a message to inspectors "that Westray was 'special' and ought to be treated as such," Judge Richard writes.

Judge Richard announced that he has abandoned efforts to have Curragh's senior executives, Mr. Frame and Marvin Pelley, testify before the inquiry. The two were fighting subpoenas issued by the inquiry in the courts.

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Frame stopped short of accepting any blame. "There seems to be no doubt that mistakes occurred in the mine on that day five-and-a-half years ago and that human error produced the conditions that caused the disaster," he said. "I deeply regret that mistakes were made."

Judge Richard said that although he wanted Mr. Frame and Mr. Pelley to be held accountable, he is confident he has the entire Westray story. Waiting for the men to testify would only further drag out the release of the report. Mr. Frame's intransigence is "eloquent testimony of his indifference to those who are entitled to have the full Westray story on record," he said.

Elmer MacKay, the former federal minister of public works and Tory MP for the area, said yesterday that he accepts part of the blame for the tragedy, since he lobbied for the federal funding that was crucial to the project. "If I knew then what I know now, I would have paid more attention to the administration and operation of the mine," he said.

Albert Martin, wearing a T-shirt with the words "No justice, no peace," said he was disappointed the inquiry was not harder on the senior executives and politicians who backed the mine that killed his son Glenn.

"This is not going to do anything to help people in the future and to ease our pain in the past," he said. "It's like the blood inquiry and the Somalia inquiry: The closer they get to the scum at the top, it seems to all fade away."

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