Official Fired Over Westray

Senior regulators testified they were unaware




Official Fired Over Westray

Fourth government employee to lose his job
in the aftermath of the Westray disaster


by Dean Jobb

This article appeared in
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald
Tuesday, April 21, 1998


A top official of the Department of Natural Resources has lost his job and another has been reprimanded for failing to properly monitor the ill-fated Westray coal mine.

Pat Phelan, executive director of the minerals and energy branch – a post equivalent to an assistant deputy minister – will not return to the department "in any capacity," spokesman Blain Henshaw said Monday.

Don Jones will resume his duties as director of mines but has received a letter of reprimand. As well, he will work on a probationary basis for six months.

No action has been taken against John Campbell, who returns to the post of manager of mining engineering.

All three were suspended with pay in December after their conduct was censured in the report of the inquiry into the May 1992 Westray explosion, which killed 26 miners.

Justice Peter Richard's report criticized the department for failing to ensure Westray management adhered to approved mining plans.

At the inquiry's hearings, Natural Resources officials testified they were not aware coal was being dug in the mine's southwest section, where the explosion originated.

The action is based on the recommendations of an independent review by the management consulting firm Coopers and Lybrand.

Mr. Phelan, a mining engineer who was with the department 19 years, reviewed Westray's application for a mining lease and oversaw his staff's monitoring of the project.

He was named to the post, which pays $75,000 a year, shortly before the Pictou County mine exploded.

While the consultants report has not been released, Mr. Henshaw quoted its recommendation about Mr. Phelan to clarify his status.

Coopers and Lybrand advised he "be relieved from further responsibility within the Department of Natural Resources and for administering regulatory programs" on the province's behalf.

Despite the finding, Mr. Phelan's civil service career may not be over. "It has not been determined yet whether there are other opportunities available elsewhere in government service or whether he would be suitable for them," Mr. Henshaw said. "That will be clarified soon."

Contacted at home Monday, Mr. Phelan declined to comment.

Mr. Henshaw would release no further information about the disciplinary actions, saying personnel matters are confidential.

In his report, Justice Richard found Mr. Phelan and Mr. Jones "remiss in their duty to take reasonable measures to ensure that the Westray mine plan would 'result in efficient and safe mining'," as required under the Mineral Resources Act.

Mr. Campbell went underground at Westray nine days before the explosion but testified he was unaware the company was mining unapproved areas.

Justice Richard described Mr. Campbell's conduct as "unprofessional and ill-advised."

A separate consultant's report released last week noted the suspensions have left the mines and minerals branch seriously understaffed, delaying decisions on mining projects.

Mr. Phelan has been replaced on an interim basis by another department official, Scott Swinden. Mr. Henshaw could not say when a permanent replacement will be named.

Mr. Phelan is the fourth government official to lose his job in the aftermath of the Westray disaster.

Former director of mine safety Claude White and mine inspector Albert McLean were fired in December after Justice Richard called the Department of Labor "derelict" in its duty to enforce safety laws.

Jack Noonan was fired as Labor's director of occupational health and safety a few months after the explosion.

Justice Richard's report criticized John Mullally, the deputy minister of Natural Resources at the time Westray was being developed, for not being familiar with the province's mining laws. He is now retired.




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