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Westray Mine

Westray Mine

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The Westray Mine was a coal mine in Plymouth
Plymouth, Pictou County, Nova Scotia
Plymouth is a small Canadian rural community in Pictou County, Nova Scotia located approximately 3 km south of the town of New Glasgow. It stretches along Route 348 situated on the east bank of the East River of Pictou, opposite the town of Stellarton....

, Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia is one of Canada's three Maritime provinces and is the most populous province in Atlantic Canada. The name of the province is Latin for "New Scotland," but "Nova Scotia" is the recognized, English-language name of the province. The provincial capital is Halifax. Nova Scotia is the...

, Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

. It was the site of an underground methane
Methane is a chemical compound with the chemical formula . It is the simplest alkane, the principal component of natural gas, and probably the most abundant organic compound on earth. The relative abundance of methane makes it an attractive fuel...

 explosion on May 9, 1992. The explosion resulted in the deaths of all 26 miners who were working underground at the time.


Following the closure of the last working mine in the 1970s, Pictou County
Pictou County, Nova Scotia
Pictou County is a county in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It was established in 1835, and was formerly a part of Halifax County from 1759 to 1835. It had a population of 46,513 people in 2006, which represents a decline of 6.3 percent from 1991. It is the sixth most populous county in Nova...

'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
Brian Mulroney
Martin Brian Mulroney, was the 18th Prime Minister of Canada from September 17, 1984, to June 25, 1993 and was leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1983 to 1993. His tenure as Prime Minister was marked by the introduction of major economic reforms, such as the Canada-U.S...

, in a 1983 by-election
A by-election is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections....

 in Central Nova
Central Nova
Central Nova is a federal electoral district in Nova Scotia, Canada, that has been represented in the Canadian House of Commons from 1968 to 1997 and since 2004. Its population in 2001 was 73,722....

. Following the election of a federal Conservative
Progressive Conservative Party of Canada
The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada was a Canadian political party with a centre-right stance on economic issues and, after the 1970s, a centrist stance on social issues....

-led government, Elmer MacKay
Elmer MacKay
Elmer MacIntosh MacKay, PC, QC is a retired Canadian politician.-Life and career:MacKay was born in Hopewell, Nova Scotia. He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons as the Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament for Central Nova through a 1971 by-election...

 became a Tory
Toryism is a traditionalist and conservative political philosophy which grew out of the Cavalier faction in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. It is a prominent ideology in the politics of the United Kingdom, but also features in parts of The Commonwealth, particularly in Canada...

 political heavyweight in the riding. Provincially, the area was also home to Conservative premier Donald Cameron
Donald William Cameron
Donald William Cameron was the 22nd Premier of Nova Scotia, Canada, from February 1991 to June 1993.His administration was known for a smaller cabinet, supporting anti-discrimination measures, and amending the human rights act to extend protection to gays and lesbians...

. 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
Trenton, Nova Scotia
Trenton is a town located in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.Trenton is situated on the east bank of the East River of Pictou, adjacent to and immediately north of the larger town of New Glasgow.- Economy :...

). The mine would feed coal to a local Nova Scotia Power Company
Nova Scotia Power
Nova Scotia Power Inc. is a power generating and delivery company in Nova Scotia. It is privately owned by Emera and regulated by the provincial government via the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board .-History:...

 generating station which was a provincial Crown corporation at the time.

Mine opens

On September 11, 1991, the mine was opened to great local fanfare, but immediately problems began to surface. Two months prior to the opening, MLA Bernie Boudreau
Bernie Boudreau
James Bernard "Bernie" Boudreau, PC, QC is a Canadian lawyer and politician.Boudreau was elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly from Cape Breton The Lakes, and served as Minister of Finance. From 1996, he served as Minister of Health in the provincial Liberal government of John Savage...

 wrote to Nova Scotia Labour Minister Leroy Legere saying the mine "is potentially one of the most dangerous in the world." 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
Coal dust
Coal dust is a fine powdered form of coal, which is created by the crushing, grinding, or pulverizing of coal. Because of the brittle nature of coal, coal dust can be created during mining, transportation, or by mechanically handling coal.-Explosions:...

, and on March 9, 1992, only 2 months before the disaster, a local union official published in a safety report that "I strongly feel there will be someone killed in the near future."

The disaster

On Saturday, May 9, 1992, a methane
Methane is a chemical compound with the chemical formula . It is the simplest alkane, the principal component of natural gas, and probably the most abundant organic compound on earth. The relative abundance of methane makes it an attractive fuel...

Gas is one of the three classical states of matter . Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point , boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma state in which the electrons...

, and subsequent coal dust 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
Springhill, Nova Scotia
-Coal mining:The first industrial coal mining in the area took place in the 1870s after a rail connection was built by the Springhill and Parrsboro Coal and Railway Company to the newly completed Intercolonial Railway at neighbouring Springhill Junction....

, 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
New Glasgow, Nova Scotia
New Glasgow is a town in Pictou County, in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada. It is situated on the banks of the East River of Pictou, which flows into Pictou Harbour, a sub-basin of the Northumberland Strait....

, Stellarton
Stellarton, Nova Scotia
-External links:*...

, Westville and Trenton
Trenton, Nova Scotia
Trenton is a town located in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.Trenton is situated on the east bank of the East River of Pictou, adjacent to and immediately north of the larger town of New Glasgow.- Economy :...

. 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
Royal Canadian Mounted Police
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police , literally ‘Royal Gendarmerie of Canada’; colloquially known as The Mounties, and internally as ‘The Force’) is the national police force of Canada, and one of the most recognized of its kind in the world. It is unique in the world as a national, federal,...

 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.

The 117 miners who were not working on shift at the time were given 12-weeks severance pay.

Cause of death

The 15 miners whose bodies were recovered all died within one minute of the explosion's ignition, according to autopsies and external medical examinations. The majority of the bodies were found to have very high concentrations of carbon monoxide
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs after enough inhalation of carbon monoxide . Carbon monoxide is a toxic gas, but, being colorless, odorless, tasteless, and initially non-irritating, it is very difficult for people to detect...

; this would cause death in 20 seconds to one minute. At least three bodies showed injuries consistent with blunt force trauma
Blunt trauma
In medical terminology, blunt trauma, blunt injury, non-penetrating trauma or blunt force trauma refers to a type of physical trauma caused to a body part, either by impact, injury or physical attack; the latter usually being referred to as blunt force trauma...

, causing several injuries, each of which would have been fatal. All of the recovered bodies showed signs of burning
A burn is an injury to flesh caused by heat, electricity, chemicals, light, radiation, or friction.Burn may also refer to:*Combustion*Burn , type of watercourses so named in Scotland and north-eastern England...

, ranging from superficial charring to fourth degree burns. Of the recovered miners, 13 were identified visually.

According to draegerman, one body was located but could not be removed from the mine. This was due to the body being crushed and trapped within machinery which had been compacted by the explosion.

The remaining 10 miners whose bodies were never located are believed to have been killed instantly. Their working areas suffered the most comprehensive destruction in the mine, with many large rockfalls
Rockfall or rock-fall refers to quantities of rock falling freely from a cliff face. A rockfall is a fragment of rock detached by sliding, toppling, or falling, that falls along a vertical or sub-vertical cliff, proceeds down slope by bouncing and flying along ballistic trajectories or by rolling...

. It is considered unlikely that any of these miners survived the explosion.


The company was charged with 52 non-criminal counts of operating an unsafe mine under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 34 were subsequently stayed by the court. In 1993, the remaining 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 26 accounts of manslaughter and criminal negligence causing death.

Throughout the trial, the Crown was reluctant to provide full disclosure in accordance with the Criminal Code. It was necessary for the trial judge to specifically order disclosure of:
(1) the Crown’s intended witnesses (ordered September 2, 1994),
(2) the order in which these witnesses (exceeding 200 in number) would be called (ordered December 2, 1994),
(3) a list of all the exhibits to be tendered by the Crown (ordered September 27, 1994), and
(4) all Crown expert reports by November 15, 1994 (ordered October 18, 1994).

On February 1, 1995, nearly 3 years after the incident, the Crown disclosed 17 new banker boxes of documents that had been in their possession for at least two years and about which they had unilaterally made a decision that there would be no disclosure. On February 27, 1995, the charges were stayed by the trial judge on the grounds that prosecutors had deliberately 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 further 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 commission was headed by Justice K. Peter Richard of the Trial Division of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Clifford Frame was a founder, principal shareholder, developer and Chairman and CEO of Curragh Inc. Through that company he was also Chairman of the executive committee for all of Curragh's subsidiary projects including Westray. Frame refused to testify at the Richard Inquiry, as did Marvin Pelley, former president of Westray. Chairman of The report submitted in 1998 recommended a sweeping overhaul of all provincial labour and mining laws which were mostly acted upon.


As a result of the failure to successfully prosecute the mines owners and managers, the Canadian Labour Congress and some of its affiliates initiated an intense lobbying campaign in the mid-1990s to amend the Criminal Code of Canada in order to hold criminally liable managers and directors of corporations that failed to take steps to protect the lives of their employees. Using the tactic of having a private member's bill introduced, typically by an MP from the New Democratic Party or the Bloc Québécois, this agenda was advanced. Each time that the House of Commons was prorogued, the private members bill would die on the order paper, and the process would start again in the next session of Parliament. On about the fifth attempt, 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
Corporate liability
In criminal law, corporate liability determines the extent to which a corporation as a legal person can be liable for the acts and omissions of the natural persons it employs...

 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, some observers believed 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.

Conversely, the United Steelworkers, the union that represented the miners and that spearheaded the lobbying effort, touted the law as an important new tool with which to hold accountable corporate leadership in on-the-job disasters. The key amendment to the Criminal Code reads as follows: "217.1 Every one who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task."


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 5:18 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
Tragedy (event)
A tragedy is an event in which one or more losses, usually of human life, occurs that is viewed as mournful. Such an event is said to be tragic....

, the two 15-storey blue concrete coal storage silos, being imploded on November 27, 1998. The damaged mine shaft had been permanently sealed following the decision to abort further recovery attempts in May 1992 and after investigations were completed.

Related works

The disaster was the subject of a 2001 National Film Board of Canada
National Film Board of Canada
The National Film Board of Canada is Canada's twelve-time Academy Award-winning public film producer and distributor. An agency of the Government of Canada, the NFB produces and distributes documentary, animation, alternative drama and digital media productions...

 documentary Westray, written and directed by Paul Cowan. The film included dramatic reenactments by three Westray widows — Harriet Munroe, Vicki Drolet and Bernadette Feltmate — as well as miners Wayne Cheverie, Fraser Agnew and Carl Guptill. The film won the award for best documentary at the 22nd Genie Awards
22nd Genie Awards
The 22nd Genie Awards were held in 2002 to honour films released in 2001. The ceremony was hosted by Brian Linehan.-Best Motion Picture:*Atanarjuat, Norman Cohn, Zacharias Kunuk, Germaine Wong and Paul Apak Angilirq, producers...

. An exhibit at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry
Nova Scotia Museum of Industry
The Nova Scotia Museum of Industry is a provincial museum located in Stellarton, Nova Scotia dedicated to the story of Nova Scotia work and workers...

 in nearby Stellarton
Stellarton, Nova Scotia
-External links:*...

explores the history of the mine and the disaster.

Further reading

  • Shaun Comish, The Westray Tragedy: a miner's story (Fernwood Publishing, 1993)
  • Dean Jobb, Calculated Risk: greed, politics and the Westray tragedy (Nimbus Publishing, 1994)
  • Dean Jobb, "Legal Disaster: Westray and the justice system," in Christopher McCormick, ed., The Westray Chronicles: a case study in corporate crime (Fernwood Publishing, 1999), pp. 163–182.
  • Leo McKay Jr, Twenty Six - work of fiction based on the Westray disaster

External links