The Westray mine disaster

NEWS IN REVIEW AND COMMENT, Shunpiking Magazine, Volume 1, Number 6, 1996

THE WESTRAY MINE in Pictou County is situated in North Central Nova Scotia where there are numerous coal seams, one of which in the Foord seam – the thickest – and mined by Westray. Yet it is also one of the most dangerous to mine by underground means anywhere in North America. The geology of this area means underground mining is always fraught with dangers from methane gas and instability, even more than is usual in mining.

The Pictou field is broken by faults – major shifts of ground that cut across the seams after millions of years of geological stress and upheaval. Cape Breton and its famous mines do not have the same problem with fault lines. The Foord seam is at the northeastern end of one fault line along which the so-called “bump” of 1958 occurred that killed 74 miners in Springhill, about 110 kilometres west of the Westray colliery.

Even though Pictou County and nearby Cape Breton possess abundant natural resources and experienced, skilled workers, there is extremely high unemployment. The price of coal dropped sharply when it was largely replaced by oil and gas after World War II, causing a decline in commercial mining, especially in areas like Pictou where it was risky and expensive. Until Westray, only the outmoded Drummond mine remained in operation until 1984.

In the middle eighties, the proposal for the Westray mine was launched by a company called Curragh Resources. Its proposal was vigorously pursued by then industry minister, Donald Cameron. His provincial riding in Pictou East is adjacent to the mine. Cameron took over as Premier of Nova Scotia in 1990 from John Buchanan. Curragh demanded provincial and federal money be procured for construction of the mine and a long-term contract to purchase the mined coal. The province soon agreed to a $12-million loan guarantee; a contract to deliver coal to Nova Scotia Power was signed. But the federal money was more difficult to obtain. There was considerable opposition from within the responsible federal department. However, the cabinet of Brian Mulroney overturned the department’s rejection of the Westray proposal, and gave to Curragh Resources an $85-million loan guarantee and an interest grant of $9-million.

Westray is located in the federal riding of Central Nova riding, whose Member of Parliament in 1983 was Elmer MacKay. That same year, Brian Mulroney was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and needed a seat in the House of Commons. MacKay resigned his seat and vacated the Central Nova riding for Mulroney During the next federal election, Mulroney ran in a Quebec riding and MacKay returning as MP from Central Nova. Mulroney gave him a Cabinet position as Public Works Minister and as Minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. It was MacKay who organized the federal money for the Westray project.

At the current Westray Inquiry into the explosion, MacKay was asked whether he considered Mulroney owed him a favour at the time and thus looked favourably on federal money being given to the Westray deal. MacKay is quoted was saying that he would whisper in Prime Minister Mulroney’s ear from time to time, “I hope you can see your way clear to facilitate the consideration of it” ($94 million for the Westray project).

Favourable consideration was forthcoming by early 1990.

Former Nova Scotia Premier Cameron said at the Inquiry that he was upset that the $94 million in federal money took so long in coming, for the Westray contract to supply coal was to be cancelled if the mine did not soon start delivering coal. However, there was opposition from other mining interests in Nova Scotia, principally in Cape Breton. Devco, a federal state corporation, also supplied Nova Scotia Power with coal and was not working at capacity. The question was raised, why put a pit in a gassy, unstable seam when there was unused productive capacity in Cape Breton ? The coal obtained from the Foord seam is extremely high in sulphur. This coal is useless for modern steel-making. One of the few markets was NS Power and its remaining coal-fired power generators antique enough to burn high-sulphur coal. NS Power had been purchased by the previous provincial government of Gerald Regan for an exorbitant amount. There was a great deal of public discontent over the price of electricity because of the increases in the price of oil.

Eventually the Buchanan and Cameron government returned much of the control, and assets, of NS Power into private hands. One of the conditions for making this divestiture as profitable as possible for the new private shareholders was that the oil-fired plants had to be replaced wherever possible with coal-fired ones. This privatization of NS Power and money to Westray were accompanied with much publicity about jobs and cheaper electricity. Opposition to these plans from Cape Breton interests was effectively suppressed.

Construction began and the mine was opened in September 1991, and exploded nine months later, killing 26 miners and destroying much of the mine. The mine has been closed; Curragh Resources declared bankruptcy of its Westray holding apparently avoiding repayment of the government -guaranteed loans. There has been no public accounting of the $106 million in taxpayers dollars that was spent by Curragh Resources.

At the Inquiry investigation of the explosion now under way in Stellarton, Cameron said the delays in federal funding forced the managers to speed up construction and go into a more dangerous coal seam. This manoeuvre was to avoid losing the contract to supply coal to Nova Scotia Power. But, according to Cameron, the ultimate blame for the explosion rests with those who were on the scene at the time of the explosion, the miners themselves and the frontline supervisors. “The bottom line is that that mine blew up on that morning because of what was going on in there at that time.”

The friend and families of the deceased miners angrily walked out the of the courtroom in the middle of Cameron’s testimony They denounced it as cowardly and self-serving, as attempting to deflect blame from those officials who were responsible for the debacle.

Earlier testimony from over 30 miners as well ads experts clearly described a dangerous situation at the mine. Miners who had suffered years of unemployment were forced to work in conditions they knew were unsafe. A high proportion of miners were young and inexperienced. It has been reported that most experienced Cape Breton miners, fearing the worst, would not work at Westray. The level of methane gas was so high that gas safety detectors were ordered shut off by managers, because they would sound the alarm so frequently. The seals keeping the gas from seeping into production areas were not properly maintained, despite constant complaints from those working underground. Clean-up crews were not organized to deal with the build up of coal dust that was lying everywhere. Proper venting was not maintained; the types of equipment introduced into the mine were the kind that could spark an explosion.

In addition, the miners were not organized in any way to defend their working condition. Wages were augmented by an infamous “bonus” system that favoured those who would go all out for production regardless of the risk. The last manor mining disaster in Nova Scotia – which took 12 lives and seriously injured four others, at the No. 26 mine in Cape Breton on February 24, 1979 – was also the last mine, before Westray, to use this “bonus” system.

It was the combination of the Foord seam with its unavoidable instability and methane gas, coupled with poor ventilation, excessive instability and methane gas, coupled with poor ventilation, excessive amounts of coal dust, improper equipment and the “bonus” system that caused the explosion, according to experts. Miners complained that it was impossible to voice complaints to provincial safety inspectors because they were always accompanied by management personnel. This was also a new operation involving millions of dollars of federal and provincial money that was glorified by the media and touted as a turn around for Nova Scotia. No negative publicity was allowed. Premier Cameron’s government faced an imminent election. (He lost his grip on power the year following the explosion.)

Today, Don Cameron is the federal government representative in New England. Elmer MacKay is in the federal Senate. John Buchanan, Nova Scotia Premier until 1990, is a federal Senator as well. Brian Mulroney is sitting in on the Boards of Directors of numerous corporations. The former Westray Mine manager, Gerald Phillips, is now a consultant for a mining company in Timmins, Ontario.

– With files from Sam MacLean

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Filed under Nova Scotia Government, Shunpiking Magazine, Working Class

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