The Westray Mine
was a coal mine
, Nova Scotia
, which was the site of a methane
explosion in 1992 that killed 26 miners.
Following the closure of the last working mine in the 1970s, Pictou County
's hopes for a mining renaissance were revived with the announcement of a proposed mine in the region in the late 1980s. The timing was perfect, politically, since the region had elected a fledgling leader of the federal opposition, Brian Mulroney
, in a 1983 by-election
in Central Nova
. Following the election of a federal Conservative
-led government, Elmer MacKay
became a Tory
political heavyweight in the riding. Provincially, the area was also home to Conservative
premier Donald Cameron
. Money was made available to Toronto company Curragh Resources for establishing a mine, as well as building an extension to a railway line and custom-built railcars (to be constructed in nearby Trenton
). The mine would feed coal to a local Nova Scotia Power Company
generating station which was a provincial Crown corporation
at the time.
On September 11
the mine was opened to great local fanfare but immediately problems began to surface. Accusations were made by mine workers of company cutbacks in safety training and equipment and of negligent and outright criminal behaviour toward safety inspections. Miners complained about working in deep coal dust
and on March 9
only 2 months before the disaster, a local union official stated in a safety report:
- "I strongly feel there will be someone killed in the near future."
On Saturday, May 9
, a methane gas
explosion at 5:18 a.m. ADT killed 26 miners. It was Canada's worst mining disaster since 1958, when a cave-in at another Nova Scotia coal mine, in Springhill
, claimed the lives of 75 miners.
In the wake of the explosion, Canadian and international media coverage descended upon the tiny hamlet of Plymouth and the nearby towns of New Glasgow, Stellarton, Westville and Trenton. Coverage gripped Canadians for several days as teams of draegerman (mine rescuers) searched the debris-strewn depths of the mine for survivors.
Over the next several days, media reported non-stop from a community centre located across the street from the mine while rescue teams encountered extremely hazardous conditions underground. Westray officials did not cooperate well with the media, which affected the release of information.
The bodies of 15 miners were discovered and afterward the search and rescue was changed to a search and recovery operation. After underground conditions worsened, the decision was made to abandon recovery efforts, entombing the bodies of 11 miners at the depths of the mine. Several days later RCMP investigators re-entered the mine with a draeger team to gather evidence for criminal prosecution but they did not enter the "southwest main" shaft where the remaining miners' bodies were located, again due to hazardous conditions.
117 miners who were not working on shift at the time were given 12-weeks severance pay.
The company was charged with 52 non-criminal counts of operating an unsafe mine under the Occupational Health and Safety Act
. In 1993 the non-criminal charges were stayed by Crown prosecutors, who expressed concern they might jeopardize future criminal charges.
Two of the mine's managers, Gerald Phillips and Roger Parry, were charged with manslaughter, but the charges were stayed by the trial judge on the grounds that prosecutors had failed to disclose key evidence to the defence. The stay was appealed to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal which ordered a new trial. The order for a new trial was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, which criticized the trial judge for having called the director of prosecutions during the trial to complain about the manner in which prosecutors were conducting the case.
After the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, prosecutors decided not to pursue the charges because they determined there was not enough evidence to secure convictions.
The Nova Scotia provincial government conducted a Royal Commission of Inquiry
into the Westray Mine and the safety issues resulting from the explosion. The report submitted in 1998 recommended a sweeping overhaul of all provincial labour and mining laws which were mostly acted upon.
In late 2003, the federal government enacted Bill C-45 in direct response to the Westray Mine disaster. The bill provided a new regime outlining the framework of corporate liability
in Canada. It also provided a new punishment scheme to allow the Courts not simply to fine corporations, but also to put them on probation to ensure that the offences were not repeated. However, Bill C-45 was largely seen as an exercise of political posturing by the federal government, as it is doubtful that the new provisions would have had any effect on the legal implications of the disaster. Because of the division of powers in the Canadian Constitution, the province is the only government that would be able to enact any real change.
Today a memorial sits in a park in nearby New Glasgow at the approximate location above ground where the remaining 11 miners are trapped. The memorial will always be there in remembrance of those who died there: The memorial's central monument, engraved with the names and ages of the twenty-six men who lost their lives in the disaster states, "Their light shall always shine."
The names and ages of the 26 miners who were killed in the Westray coal mine disaster at 5:20 am on 9 May 1992:
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.
Mine site razed
The former mine site was razed in 1998 with the most visible reminder of the tragedy, the two 15-storey blue concrete coal storage silos, being imploded on November 27
. The damaged mine shaft had been permanently sealed following the decision to abort further recovery attempts in May 1992 and after investigations were completed.