Mourn the dead: fight for the living.

May 9, 2018

On May 9, 1992, just eight months after opening with federal and provincial government support, an underground methane explosion killed all 26 miners working in the Westray coal mine. An official inquiry into the disaster discovered profound “stupidity and neglect” on the part of the owners, but all attempts to prosecute the company and its officials failed. It took 11 years to finally change the law and make employers criminally responsible when workers are killed.

Early in the morning beneath the small town of Plymouth, Nova Scotia, a methane gas leak into the Westray mine shaft from the Foord coal seam mixed with coal dust and caused in an explosion. The sky lit up with a blue flash and homes more than a kilometer away shook with the force of blast. Within seconds 26 miners working underground on that shift were killed.

In little over an hour a team of men was down the mine on foot to attempt a rescue. They were soon joined by rescue teams from mines in Cape Breton, Pugwash and Bathurst as is the tradition of miners rushing in to help their fellow miners. But there were no survivors of this explosion.

When the explosion happened, the Westray mine was the only working underground coal mine in Pictou County, Nova Scotia’s coalfield. The coal seam there had been mined for 200 years with a long history of explosions. The nearby Allan mine, which closed in 1951, experienced eight methane explosions in its 40-years of operations.

The Westray death toll was Canada’s worst mining disaster since the 1958 “bump” in the Springhill coal mine that claimed the lives of 75 miners. Coal mining has always been dangerous work. Between 1838 and 1950, 246 Pictou County miners were killed in similar methane and coal-dust explosions. Many of them were mining the Foord seam that the Westray mine was working. Between 1866 and 1972, another 330 miners were killed in other mine related accidents. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics a worker in the coal mining industry is six times more likely to die of a job-related issue than in any other private industry on earth.

Despite these dangers, it turns out the Westray mine was an accident waiting to happen. Before the mine opened, concerns had been raised about its safety. During its construction, in July 1991, a letter was sent to the provincial Labour Minister from MLA Bernie Boudreau warning that the new coal mine “is potentially one of the most dangerous in the world.” The promise of new jobs, rich profits and political reward left those warnings and others unheeded.

Following the disaster, a provincial inquiry lead by Justice Peter Richard found “The Westray story is a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity and neglect.”  (The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster.) Yet, all attempts to prosecute the company and its officials for actions that lead to the deaths of 26 men failed.

Canada’s unions responded with a campaign to change the Criminal Code so corporate managers and directors who fail to take steps to protect the lives of their employees could be held criminally liable in the event of workplace deaths. Private members’ bills were introduced in Parliament only to fail until, on the fifth attempt, in 2003, the federal government enacted what would come to be known as the “Westray Bill” that provided a new framework for corporate liability in Canada.

The Westray mine site was razed in 1998 and the mine shaft sealed entombing the bodies of 11 miners. A memorial was built in a park in nearby New Glasgow approximately at the location above ground where the remaining miners were trapped. 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 memorial lands were protected by the Nova Scotia government and further mineral exploration is prohibited within the park.

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