Westray Disaster Had Deep Roots

Province refuses to tell the Public Inquiry what it knows

Westray Disaster Had Deep Roots

Westray Fiasco Reaches a New Low Ebb

by Parker Barss Donham

This column appeared in
The Halifax Sunday Daily News
Sunday, July 16, 1995

Just when the Westray fiasco seemed to have reached a low ebb, the moral tide dropped a few more feet last week. The province, Ottawa, and the RCMP all refused to comply with the Westray Inquiry's demand for documents in the case.

Staff Sgt. Ches MacDonald, the Mountie who headed the criminal investigation of Westray, refused to testify altogether, on grounds that doing so might prejudice criminal proceedings. That's in a case already thrown out of court for non-disclosure – some of it MacDonald's – and currently under dubious appeal.

The RCMP's concern with justice at Westray is belated. For weeks after the explosion, the force failed to carry out the elementary task of securing the crime scene. It stood by while Curragh shredded documents. Officers busied themselves with duties fit for company police: keeping reporters away from corporate officials, draegermen, and family members. Then, when his investigation finally got underway, MacDonald chose as his underground guide a miner accused of plugging methane monitors.

The province's refusal to tell the inquiry what it knows is harder to fathom, as is Ottawa's. Both governments cited cabinet secrecy and solicitor-client privilege – prerogatives they are free to waive, but chose not to.

As Justice Dept. flack Peter Spurway explained it, where there was doubt as to whether privilege might apply, the government assumed it did and withheld requested documents. He promised a second look if the inquiry seemed miffed by this standard of care.

That's the same approach the government, under Spurway's guidance, gives freedom of information requests. It's inappropriate there; it's repugnant in a case where 26 men died – deaths the current government didn't hesitate to use for political advantage while in opposition.

If the province and Ottawa won't stop obstructing the quest for truth, maybe the time has come to call off the inquiry. After all, none of Westray's many causes is especially mysterious.

In the most immediate, literal sense, the Westray disaster was caused by a spark from a continuous mining machine in the pit's southwest section. The spark ignited a pocket of methane, sending a lethal, oxygen-robbing fireball down the slope.

Eleven of the men who perished in the disaster, the ones whose bodies were recovered first, died there, on the spot. A few had time to reach for their emergency breathing packs; others never knew what hit them.

As the fireball roared down the deeps, it stirred up the coal dust company officials had allowed to accumulate throughout the mine's honeycombed passageways. Coal dust is incendiary. It fuelled the conflagration, transforming the fire into an explosion, and the mine into a bomb.

By the time the blast reached the north mains, where the rest of the miners died, it carried enough force to shatter rock walls and crush underground vehicles. Flesh and bone were no match for such a power.

That's what went wrong on the morning of 9 May 1992.

But the Westray disaster had deeper roots.

It was caused by management that allowed coal dust to build up, failed to oversee regular applications of stone dust (a standard precaution to neutralize the explosive potential of coal dust), allowed spark-generating machines to operate amidst high concentrations of methane, and maintained a corporate atmosphere that subordinated safety to production.

The disaster was caused by miners who, fearing for their livelihoods and desperate to provide for their families, acquiesced in management's disregard for elementary safety – sometimes abetting management by plugging methane monitors and redirecting ventilating equipment.

It was caused by the capitalist excesses of Clifford Frame, a promoter who made his career flattering gullible politicians and mining government grants. Having put up little or no money to get Westray going, Curragh Inc.'s unrealistic demands for cash flow ensured the mine's reckless mode of operation.

It was caused by provincial mine inspectors, who knew most of the mine's safety defects, but failed to insist on their correction – their duty to do so overwhelmed by a political climate that rendered Westray beyond regulation.

It was caused by Donald Cameron, whose commitment to a job creation project adjacent to his own riding blinded him to the financial folly of Frame's demands, and deafened him to the cautionary advice of bureaucrats who thought better of the deal. It was caused by Cameron's allies, Robert Coates, Elmer MacKay, and Brian Mulroney, who greased the political machinery that gave birth to the project.

An inquiry won't shed much more light on these events, especially not an inquiry politicians, cops and bureaucrats are determined to frustrate.

If you want to know more about what caused the Westray Disaster, read reporter Dean Jobb's thorough book, Calculated Risk: Greed, Politics, and the Westray Tragedy (Nimbus Publishing).

If it's an inquiry you want, let's give a retired Supreme Court judge $200,000 to write a report on why our justice system can't come to grips with events like Westray.

But let's not humiliate ourselves further by squandering more public money to wrest answers from an unyielding alliance of politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen.

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