Westray Verdict

Outside, a wet, heavy snowfall is turning rural Nova Scotia into a pre-Christmas postcard of frosted evergreens and rolling white fields. Inside, Allen and Debbie Martin sit at their kitchen table, sipping coffee and trying to put their feelings into words.

Westray Verdict

Outside, a wet, heavy snowfall is turning rural Nova Scotia into a pre-Christmas postcard of frosted evergreens and rolling white fields. Inside, Allen and Debbie Martin sit at their kitchen table, sipping coffee and trying to put their feelings into words. Just hours earlier, and a few minutes drive away in Stellarton, N.S., Justice Peter Richard of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court had delivered his long-awaited public inquiry report into the May 9, 1992, Westray mine explosion that killed 26 men, including Allen Martin's 35-year-old brother, Glenn. The Martins appreciated Richard's hard-hitting account of the Westray tragedy as a tale of, among other things, "incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect" on the part of mine managers and their government overseers. But their satisfaction at those findings is tempered by an inconsolable sense of loss. Glenn, who had no children of his own, was a doting uncle to his nine nephews and nieces, including Allen and Debbie's two teenage daughters. "It's at this time of year that we miss him most," says Debbie quietly, her eyes welling with tears. "To this day, Christmas has never been the same."

For the families of the 26 Westray victims, last week's 750-page report was a long time coming. Former Nova Scotia premier Donald Cameron appointed Richard to head the public inquiry just a week after the deadly explosion. But the inquiry was twice delayed because of criminal charges - some still pending - against former Westray managers and the owners of the mine, Curragh Inc. When public hearings finally did begin in Stellarton in November, 1995, many of the victims' relatives, including the Martins, listened grimly as outside experts and former Westray miners told of overlooked safety violations, dangerous working conditions and managers who intimidated staff into unsafe practices in a bid to increase coal production at the mine, which opened just eight months before the explosion.

During 76 days of testimony, the inquiry also heard from company officials, provincial mine inspectors and many of the politicians who had lobbied so hard to establish the Westray mine in a region where unemployment rates typically hover around 20 per cent. Again and again, these witnesses denied responsibility, deflected blame onto others, or simply failed to recollect what they had said or done with regard to Westray. Most galling of all to the relatives of the dead men was Cameron's appearance before the inquiry. The former premier, a relentless booster of the mine, had been instrumental in securing more than $100 million in provincial and federal loans and loan guarantees for the project. And he told the inquiry that the blame for the tragedy lay with miners who, according to earlier testimony, had tampered with methane monitors. "Was it the politician who was pressing the reset buttons?" he asked. "The bottom line is that the mine blew up that morning because of what was going on in there at that time."

Richard categorically rejected that line of reasoning. While some men engaged in dangerous practices, he said, they did so because of pressure from management. "They were underground miners and technicians trying to make a living," he added, "who were lulled into a feeling of safety by people who should have known better." It was Cameron, in fact, who drew Richard's criticism: the former premier's drive to bring jobs to the area "may have clouded his judgment and prompted him to gloss over negative aspects."

Richard blamed the tragedy on a series of appalling safety lapses at the mine, to which provincial authorities repeatedly turned a blind eye. He said the initial source of the blast was sparks struck by a machine called a continuous miner as it cut into the coal seam in the early morning hours of May 9. The sparks ignited a cloud of methane - a gas that seeps naturally from coal - sending men racing down one shaft as a rolling flame licked above their heads. When the flame hit a thick layer of coal dust, it set off a massive explosion that burst through the mine, killing the men within seconds. Those initial sparks would have faded harmlessly, said Richard, if Westray officials had not flouted provincial mining regulations by allowing hazardous levels of coal dust to accumulate and by failing to properly ventilate the mine to prevent methane buildups.

And what about those who were supposed to enforce such safety standards? In just one of many telling examples, Richard describes how, despite the company's repeated failure over several months to clear coal dust from the mine, Albert McLean, then the province's chief mine inspector, waited until April 29, 1992, to order an immediate cleanup. Even at that, McLean failed to follow up on his own orders in a visit to the mine on May 6 - just three days before the explosion.

Richard says a mindset developed among Westray management - tacitly supported by provincial authorities - that put coal production ahead of protecting workers. Miners who raised safety concerns were regarded as "wimps." He cites the case of Carl Guptill, who was injured in December, 1991, after being ordered to work underground even though his cap lamp was too dim. Guptill complained to the provincial department of labor about the incident and other safety violations at the mine. Not only were his concerns ignored, but officials revealed the name of the complainant to the company, which subsequently fired Guptill. Finally, the department deleted references to Guptill's complaints from internal documents in an apparent attempt to avoid embarrassing or confronting Westray officials.

Guptill, who now raises sea urchins near Drum Head, N.S., told Maclean's last week that he had expected little to come of the public inquiry. "Because Richard was appointed by Cameron, I was very skeptical that he would do the job," he says. "After Westray, I'd lost all faith in everything above the common man." But as he learned of Richard's findings, Guptill felt a great sense of relief. "He couldn't have done a better job," he says. "He got to the bottom of it."

That was a common sentiment among those most directly touched by the Westray tragedy. It was mixed, however, with profound skepticism over whether the provincial government will follow through on the justice's 74 recommendations. Among the key proposals: there should be an independent review of the provincial mining inspection branch; the department of natural resources should no longer act as both a promoter and regulator of mining developments, since this constitutes a conflict of interest; and Ottawa should amend legislation to ensure company executives are held accountable for workplace safety.

Relatives of the Westray victims say an impending provincial election provides them with some leverage for getting the government to act. Certainly, Nova Scotia Premier Russell MacLellan wasted no time last week, striking a cabinet committee to review all 74 recommendations and report back on a plan of action before Christmas. "My concern," said MacLellan, "is to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again."

MacLellan declined to comment on outstanding compensation claims by relatives of 23 of the 26 Westray victims. And it remained unclear what effect, if any, Richard's report would have on charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence that have been brought against two former Westray managers, Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry. RCMP spokesmen said that they did not rule out further investigations or new charges once they finished reviewing the report. Meanwhile, legal counsel for Phillips and Parry urged that the charges be dropped. Because Richard's report showed so many were to blame for the Westray tragedy, they argued, it was unfair to single out one or two individuals for prosecution.

One person who did appear to be off the hook was Clifford Frame, the former chairman of Curragh Inc. The Toronto-based Frame, who has always denied any responsibility for the tragedy and who has also publicly attributed the explosion to worker error, waged a lengthy legal battle to avoid testifying before the Richard inquiry. To prevent any further delay in releasing his report, Richard said he had given up chasing Frame. From the offices of his new company, Mineral Resources Corp., Frame issued a terse news release last week, stating again that "human error" caused the mine to explode. Frame added that he "will ever grieve" for the 26 dead men.

"Bluster and bullshit" is the way Allen Martin sums up his views on Frame. But his wrath is not reserved for Frame alone. In trying to find out why his brother and 25 others died, Martin says he has lost his faith in all authority figures. "They lie to you every time they speak," he says. "I've no respect for them at all." It is a cynicism, and a sadness, that even Richard's illuminating report could not dispel.

Maclean's December 15, 1997