Deadly Westray Mine Blast Preventable

Unwavering support from the provincial government

Westray "Deceit",
Deadly Mine Blast Preventable: Probe

by Graeme Hamilton

This article appeared in
The Gazette
Montreal, Tuesday, December 2, 1997

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.

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 supported the risky venture.

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

Richard acknowledged that the 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, his report said.

Genesta Halloran, who lost her husband, John, 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 press 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 to the report and to families' demands for compensation before Christmas.

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 lay with the mine's management. But driven by production concerns, the company failed to train its workers properly, and ignored warning signs, he says.

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," Richard says.

Faced with overwhelming evidence that Westray was unsafe, provincial labour-department 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 fueled 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.

Richard criticizes the "unacceptable performance" of 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."

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 Cameron, who was industry minister before becoming premier, for criticism, saying his "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."

In a statement yesterday, Frame stopped short of accepting any blame.

"There seems to be no doubt that mistakes occurred in the mine on that day 5½ years ago and that human error produced the conditions that caused the disaster," he said. "I deeply regret that mistakes were made."

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.

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