The Westray Mine Disaster

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Westray Mine disaster in 1992. At 5:18 am on Saturday, May 9, 1992, a great, blue flame flashed out of the mine opening, a cloud of black smoke on its tail [1]. 26 miners lost their lives when a methane and coal dust explosion destroyed the mine. Eleven miners remain entombed in the mine. The disaster at the mine continues to impact the lives of the miners’ families and lives in Plymouth, Nova Scotia.

If you have not heard about the Westray Mine Disaster, Canadaland’s investigative journalist Arshy Mann digs deep into the disaster in MINING #4 — The Westray Disaster [7], including interviews with miners who worked at the Westray Mine and participated in the rescue and recovery efforts. Featured in this episode: Vernon Theriault, and Tom Sandborn. If you prefer documentary videos, watch the CBC’s The Last Shift [8].

The Westray Mine Disaster eventually resulted in Bill C-45 being brought forward in the Canadian Parliament in 2004. This bill criminalized negligence related to OHS in all Canadian jurisdictions. The bill eliminated legal limits on fines associated with OHS violations and simplified prosecutors’ jobs by allowing them to charge everyone who had control over the workplace where the injury or fatality occurred by eliminating the need to determine a “controlling mind” within the business. In most cases, before this bill passed, the difficulties related to finding a single “controlling mind” in a business meant that successfully prosecuting anyone was nearly impossible. That’s why the original Westray prosecution eventually failed.

Memorial

The Westray Mine Disaster Memorial in the the Their Light Will Always Shine Memorial Park in Stellarton, Nova Scotia. Photo by S. Marshall
Memorial with the names of the 26 miners
image: [6]

The miners are remembered at the Westray Mine Disaster memorial in Their Light Shall Always Shine Memorial Park in Stellarton, NS. The memorial park is located above the section of the mine where the miners died.

The miners killed in the disaster included:

  • John Thomas Bates, 56
  • Larry Arthur Bell, 25
  • Bennie Joseph Benoit, 42
  • Wayne Michael Conway, 38
  • Ferris Todd Dewan, 35
  • Adonis J. Dollimont, 36
  • Robert Steven Doyle, 22
  • Remi Joseph Drolet, 38
  • Roy Edward Feltmate, 33
  • Charles Robert Fraser, 29
  • Myles Daniel Gillis, 32
  • John Philip Halloran, 33
  • Randolph Brian House, 27
  • Trevor Martin Jahn, 36
  • Laurence Elwyn James, 34
  • Eugene W. Johnson, 33
  • Stephen Paul Lilley, 40
  • Michael Frederick MacKay, 38
  • Angus Joseph MacNeil, 39
  • Glenn David Martin, 35
  • Harry A. McCallum, 41
  • Eric Earl McIsaac, 38
  • George S. James Munroe, 38
  • Danny James Poplar, 39
  • Romeo Andrew Short, 35
  • Peter Francis Vickers, 38

May they always be remembered.

The Mine

The Westray Mine in 1990. In the centre of the photo are two large concrete towers, with blue shacks on top against an overcast sky with hills in the background shrouded in haze. The tower on the right has a white conveyor descending from it toward the right edge of the image. On the left are smaller blue buildings with white conveyors connecting them to the towers. The foreground shows rolling hills and trees with a white shed on the lower right, and a green bard on the left.
The Westray Mine, Plymouth, NS ca. 1990.
Courtesy of the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library, scan0003.jpg.

The Westray Mine was owned and operated by Curragh Resources Incorporated (Curragh Inc.), which obtained provincial and federal government money to open the mine and supply the local electric power utility with coal.

Mine Opening

The mine opened on September 11, 1991, closing only eight months later after the underground methane explosion on May 9, 1992. National media widely followed the week-long attempts to rescue the miners until it was apparent there would be no survivors.

An investigation by the Nova Scotia Department of Labour followed the recovery operations. In November 1998, the mine was dismantled and permanently sealed.

Additional Lives Affected

In addition to the 26 miners killed in the disaster, 117 became unemployed immediately after the explosion. It took six more years and the Provincial government’s intervention before 12 weeks’ severance pay was given to the laid-off miners.

Mine hazards

Curragh Inc. planned to extract coal from the infamous Foord coal seam. The Foord coal seam is notoriously unstable and laden with methane gas. The Allen Mine closed in the 1950s and was the last mine to work the seam. That mine had experienced eight methane gas explosions before closing.

Early Design Changes

In developing the mine, Curragh Inc. had scrapped the original plans early on, changing tunnel directions so miners could tap into the coal seam sooner. Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources was worried that the route would cross major geological faults. At one point, it threatened to pull Westray’s mining permit but backed off for never explained reasons [2].

Department of Labour Concerns

The Nova Scotia Department of Labour expressed concerns about the training and certification of workers and the lack of an emergency plan. Despite this, the labour ministry gave the operators, Curragh Inc., a special permit to use the proposed methods to tunnel until they reached the coal seam, but not mine coal, as the proposed methods were not considered safe for coal mining.

Dangerous Mining Methods

Even before the mine opened on September 11, 1991, concerns about the mining methods used were raised. Two months before the opening, MLA Bernie Boudreau wrote to the Nova Scotia labour minister Leroy Legere asking why the mine was using potentially dangerous mining methods not approved for coal mining [3].

In its first two months of operation, the mine experienced four roof falls. Department of Labour inspectors repeatedly asked the company for roof support plans. The Department also raised concerns about the mine’s failure to clean up the highly flammable coal dust that lined the floors and walls and its lack of stone-dusting, a process to neutralize the material’s explosive nature [2].

Weeks before the disaster, a provincial inspector issued an order to have the coal dust cleaned and stone-dusted but did not enforce the order during a return visit just days before the explosion.

How the miners died

According to autopsies and external medical examinations, the 15 miners whose bodies were recovered all died within one minute of the explosion’s ignition [4]. Most of the bodies were found to have very high concentrations of carbon monoxide; this would cause death in 20 seconds to one minute [5]. At least three bodies showed injuries consistent with blunt force trauma, causing several injuries which would have been fatal. All recovered bodies showed signs of burning, ranging from superficial charring to fourth-degree burns. Of the recovered miners, 13 were identified visually.

One body was located but could not be removed from the mine. The body was crushed and trapped within machinery compacted by the explosion. The remaining ten miners, whose bodies were never located, were believed to have been killed instantly. Their working areas suffered the most comprehensive destruction in the mine, with many large rockfalls. From the available information, It is unlikely that any of these miners survived the explosion.

Inquiry

The same day the recovery operation ended, the Nova Scotia government ordered a public inquiry to investigate what caused one of Canada’s deadliest mining disasters. Justice K. Peter Richard would lead the inquiry. The inquiry’s findings were published in late 1997. The inquiry report stated that the mine was mismanaged, miners’ safety was ignored, and poor oversight by government regulators led to the disaster.

Richard concluded that (Westray) is a story of incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness, cover-up, apathy, expediency, and of cynical indifference” [2].

Criminal case

A criminal case against two mine managers went to trial in the mid-1990s but ultimately was dropped by the crown in 1998, as it seemed unlikely that the Crown could attain a conviction. Curragh Resources went bankrupt in 1993, partially due to the disaster.

Department of Labour action

The Department of Labour filed 52 charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act against Curragh Resources and four local mine managers five months after the explosion. At the same time, the RCMP was conducting a criminal investigation. In December, the province announced it was dropping its charges over fears those trials could interfere with potential criminal charges.

RCMP Press Conference

Nearly a year after the disaster, the RCMP called a press conference at the fire hall in Plymouth. The families had gathered in the same fire hall in the days following the disaster. The RCMP announced charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death against Curragh Resources Inc. and former mine managers Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry. The more than 100 people in attendance – many families of the 26 miners killed – responded with a standing ovation.

Charges Stayed

The families’ euphoria was short-lived. The trial began in February 1995, but the charges stayed when the judge ruled the prosecution had failed to disclose key evidence to the defence. That ruling was appealed twice, and two years later, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a new trial. But on 30 June 1997, Crown Attorneys returned to the fire hall in Plymouth to tell the miners’ families that the case was over; they were dropping all charges. After reviewing the evidence, prosecutors believed there was no reasonable chance of a conviction.

Bill C-45

In 2002, following lobbying efforts by unions and the Westray Families Group, the federal government introduced Bill C-45. The “Westray Bill” established a legal duty for all persons who “direct the work of others” to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of workers and the public. It introduced new sections in the Criminal Code of Canada so that corporations and their representatives can be charged criminally if they fail to do so.

Few Charges Laid

Since becoming law in 2004, fewer than a dozen charges have been laid under the legislation, and no one has been handed a jail sentence. In the three convictions to date, employers paid a fine after reaching a plea bargain. In 2014, the United Steelworkers union, with support from the Westray Families Group, launched a nationwide campaign urging the federal government to give police and prosecutors the training, tools and direction to enforce the provisions of Bill C-45.


References

[1] “Westray Mine Explosion, Plymouth, 1992”, Museum of Industry, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://museumofindustry.novascotia.ca/nova-scotia-industry/nova-scotia-coal-mining-tragedies/pictou-county-coal-mines/westray-mine. [Accessed: 09- May- 2022].

[2] “Westray Disaster”, Thecanadianencyclopedia.ca, 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/westray-disaster. [Accessed: 09- May- 2022].

[3] J. Spears, “Nova Scotian coal mining fuelled by politics of need”, Toronto Star, pp. A1, A24, 1992.

[4] Justice K. Peter Richard, “The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster”, Province of Nova Scotia, Halifax, 1997. [Online]. Available: https://novascotia.ca/lae/pubs/westray/. [Accessed: 09- May- 2022].

[5] C. Farnsworth, “Search Suspended at Canadian Mine”, The New York Times, 1992. [Online]. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/1992/05/15/world/search-suspended-at-canadian-mine.html. [Accessed: 09- May- 2022].

[6] S. Marshall, “A visit to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia”, seanmarshall.ca, 2017. [Online]. Available: https://seanmarshall.ca/2017/07/19/a-visit-to-new-glasgow-nova-scotia/. [Accessed: 09- May- 2022].

[7] A. Mann, MINING #4 — The Westray Disaster. Toronto: Canadaland, 2021.

[8] Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Westray Mine disaster – The Last Shift – the fifth estate. 2014.

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