Killer Coal Lies in Wait

The Westray explosion surprised management,
but not experienced miners

Killer Coal Lies in Wait

by Bob MacDonald

This article appeared in
The Calgary Sun
Calgary, Thursday, December 4, 1997

"The deadly explosion that ripped the new Westray mine here shouldn't have happened because the mine shouldn't have opened."

Those were the opening words of a column I wrote in 1992, the day after a devastating explosion had ripped apart the Westray coal mine in the place where I was born and raised – Plymouth, Pictou County, Nova Scotia.

As a person whose family on my mother's side – the MacPhersons – had been coal miners in that area for generations, I had grown up aware of the danger of what was known as the Foord coal seam. It's one of the thickest seams of bituminous(soft) coal in the world, but also produces huge amounts of dangerous methane gas when mined.

In fact, 150 miners had lost their lives over the years getting Foord seam coal and the last mine on it – the notorious Allan Shaft – had to be closed 40 years earlier.

During the century-plus that mines had operated on the Foord seam, the miners and mine management had learned painful lessons that to avoid explosions and fires, the most careful methods of mining safety had to be employed. To do otherwise could mean disaster.

However, as I noted in that first column after the Westray explosion that killed all 26 miners underground at the time, the developers of this latest mine had arrogantly ignored the past.

Westray, owned by Toronto-based Curragh Resources, had decided to carve huge tunnels through which would be forced large amounts of continuously circulating fresh air.

They would also employ massive, electric machines.

However, as I wrote:

"But that didn't stop many local people from shaking their heads – especially when they heard that trucks, bulldozers and even welding machines – all capable of producing sparks – were being used."

"It didn't make any sense – it just seemed crazy," I quoted Henry Heighton, a retired veteran miner who had been captain of one of the rescue teams that saved many lives after the 1956 Springhill mine disaster.

The dreaded explosion was no surprise to retired miners, but seemed surprising to Curragh boss Clifford Frame and his management team.

Well, five years later, an investigation headed by Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Peter Richard has finally verified the ghastly mess. He summarized his condemnation:

"It is a story of incompetence, mismanagement,
of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness,
of coverup, of apathy, of expediency and of cynical
indifference. It is a tragic story."

Richard ripped Westray management and its "uncompromising and abusive" owner, Cliff Frame, as those primarily responsible for conditions at the mine.

But he also lambasted the performance of provincial mine safety inspectors.

And he also was critical of former premier Don Cameron for becoming too much of "an advocate" for the mine.

Of course, Frame has now expressed some regret about "mistakes" made in its operation, but he also persistently refused to testify at the inquiry.

Charges against two management bosses may continue and the provincial Liberal government will attempt to implement 72 recommendations made by Richard. "

We knew all along that this accident didn't have to happen" said Genesta Halloran, whose husband died in the blast.

She and the families of other victims vowed the safety recommendations will be implemented – even if it takes the rest of their lives to accomplish it.

Unfortunately, if the past history of coal mining in that area means anything, it will probably take their lifetimes and more.

Humans have a way of burying mistakes when there's a dollar to be made.

The Foord seam death count stands at 176.

How long will it be before someone else comes along and declares they have a foolproof way to safely mine it?

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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