Westray Miners Testify

Wayne Cheverie shifted uneasily in his chair as he waited to testify last week at a provincial inquiry into the fatal May 9, 1992, explosion at Nova Scotia's Westray coal mine.

Westray Miners Testify

Wayne Cheverie shifted uneasily in his chair as he waited to testify last week at a provincial inquiry into the fatal May 9, 1992, explosion at Nova Scotia's Westray coal mine. Perhaps the broad-shouldered underground mechanic, a 41-year-old father of three who now works as a potash miner in Sussex, N.B., was unaccustomed to the dark suit, shirt and tie, and suspenders he wore for the occasion. Or perhaps it was the site of the hearing itself - a spare room in Nova Scotia's new Museum of Industry in Stellarton, N.S., which squats above the very coal seam that claimed the lives of 26 of Cheverie's mining comrades. Most likely, though, it was simply that, nearly four years after the fatal day when a methane fire triggered a massive coal dust explosion, Cheverie was the first person who had actually worked the depths of the Westray mine to tell his story for the official record. "I want to tell you I'm very nervous," Cheverie told Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Peter Richard, who is heading the inquiry, moments after swearing his oath.

Ironically, he had registered the same concern with a supervisor when first assigned to the underground shift at the mine in the summer of 1991, after three months working aboveground in a repair shop. Cheverie testified that he received practically no safety training. Instead, he was handed several maintenance manuals for the machinery he would tend below ground and told that he would either "sink or swim." In the months that followed, he said that he witnessed a number of unsafe practices in the mine and narrowly escaped two potentially lethal situations - including a small fire just a week before the fatal explosion. He described working in areas where the coal dust lay so thick that it would halt machinery, as well as the use of acetylene torches and non-flameproof vehicles in areas where methane levels could be dangerous. He also told the inquiry that, on the shift before the explosion, he saw a mine supervisor tamper with a methane monitor on a mining machine to allow it to operate at higher-than-prescribed levels.

Despite his misgivings about the mine's safety practices, Cheverie never filed a written complaint detailing his concerns. Such complaints, he testified, were greeted with harassment and intimidation by Westray managers. "On several occasions, I witnessed people at Westray complaining about safety, and on every occasion that happened, the person complaining was reprimanded or intimidated into submission." Cheverie said the company's disregard for the well-being of the miners was evident even after the deadly blast. He described how, moments after the search for bodies had been called off, manager Gerald Phillips urged miners to do everything they could - including making positive statements to the media - to get the mine re-opened. According to Cheverie, Phillips said: "What's done is done. What we have to do here is concentrate on getting the mine back into production as quickly and cheaply as possible."

For the families of the men who died, Cheverie's testimony simply confirmed their own feelings of bitterness and despair. "For the most part it's just plain frustration," said Allen Martin, whose brother, Glenn, died in the explosion. "We know what happened. We know that other people know what happened, and we can't understand why in the hell it's taking so long to get any justice."

In fact, the official quest for answers about the disaster could only be described as a circular crawl. A myriad of lawyers, judges and government officials have pushed the Westray files back and forth between Halifax and Ottawa. Charges under the province's occupational safety legislation were initially laid against the owners of the mine, Curragh Inc., and four Westray officials, but were later withdrawn to clear the way for the inquiry. The inquiry itself, originally scheduled to begin in the fall of 1992, was delayed until last November by arguments over how it might prejudice criminal proceedings. And finally, charges of man-slaughter and criminal negligence against Phillips and fellow mine manager Roger Parry skidded to a stop last June when Nova Scotia Supreme Court Judge Robert Anderson accused the Crown of failing to provide appropriate disclosure of evidence. Nova Scotia's appeal court subsequently ordered a new trial, a decision further appealed by the defendants to the Supreme Court of Canada.

So far, the inquiry has heard evidence that appears to support the contention of many Westray miners that their former employer - which had received $100 million in public loans and loan guarantees from Conservative governments in Ottawa and Nova Scotia for what was seen as a fast-track job-creation project - cared more about maximizing production levels than preserving lives. Last week, for example, Andrew Liney, a British mine-ventilation expert who prepared a report on the disaster for the RCMP, told the inquiry that the concentration of methane gas that triggered the explosion could have been flushed out in a matter of days if the mine had been shut down. After Liney listed a number of unsafe practices at the mine - including inadequate methane monitoring and the use of acetylene torches - he said he was at a loss for words to describe his feelings about how the Westray managers conducted their business. But then he found some. "My gut instinctive human reaction," said Liney, "is that this was an absolutely unbelievable disgrace."

Maclean's January 29, 1996