Westray Exposed Government's Shortcomings

Nova Scotia government bureaucrats ignored warnings,
disregarded laws, altered official meeting minutes
and turned a blind eye to illegal practices.

Westray Exposed Government's Shortcomings

By Karen Janigan

This article appeared in
The Sunday Daily News
Halifax, Sunday, 7 December 1997

Justice Peter Richard's Westray report is as much about how bad our provincial government is, as it is about how 26 miners died in the explosion at the Westray mine.

Richard is blunt that senior managers at Curragh Inc. sacrificed the lives of their employees in search of profits from the Westray mine. But he's equally blunt in saying that if a number of bureaucrats in the Labor and Natural Resources departments had done their jobs, the explosion may have been prevented.

He details a shameful number of incidents where bureaucrats ignored warnings, disregarded laws, discouraged others from making Westray conform to regulations, altered official meeting minutes or turned a blind eye to illegal practices.

Richard's most damning example is John Mullally, the former deputy minister of Natural Resources appointed a year before the explosion: "... the new deputy minister of natural resources did not consider it important to be familiar with the relevant legislation; he did not know, at the time, that the company was out of compliance with the legislation; and he had not made much effort to follow up on warnings from his staff that all was not well at the Westray mine."

He did not consider it important to know legislation he was supposed to enforce? Too busy cashing the paycheque?

In Labor, Richard slams the former executive director of occupations health and safety for never having read the Coal Mines Regulation Act – a piece of legislation he was supposed to uphold.

The most frightening thing is that he not only found an alarming amount of ignorance and apathy, he found evidence that it's a systemic problem.

That means lives that depend on government vigilance could be in trouble. And we've been wasting money paying bureaucrats who don't want to do their jobs properly.

And despite ample evidence of defiance problems during the inquiry, the government has done nothing about it, yet.

Richard has some suggestions; many of them heartbreakingly obvious.

He recommends a thorough review of both Labor and Natural Resources – one would hope by an independent party, to stop other problems from falling through the cracks. The point would be to clarify duties and responsibilities. So everyone knows what he or she is supposed to be doing.

Richard says it became clear to him that deputy ministers need more direction in how to do their jobs.

"The recent tendency to place generalist 'managers' in these important positions seems to result in some deputy ministers having an incomplete and inconsistent understanding of the job" he writes.

Richard recommends the province draw up detailed job descriptions that include requiring the deputy ministers to be familiar with the legislation they are supposed to uphold. That seems to be so much common sense, it's pitiful a judge must recommend it.

Even though Curragh had single-minded political support to open Westray and provide jobs, Richard finds no evidence of political interference to give Westray an easy ride when it came to safety. He does find, however, that cabinet ministers involved had "imperfect" understandings of their responsibilities.

He recommends that Nova Scotia formally adopt the British model where government ministers take responsibility for everything their officials do, whether they know about it or not.

If Westray's management had been exemplary and experienced mine managers, the shortcomings of our government would not have been exposed by the glaring light from the deadly explosion. But that clearly wasn't the case.

Now Premier Russell MacLellan must ensure the miners did not die in vain. The review by the cabinet committee of Richard's recommendations should be short and their implementation swift.

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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