BY ROGER ANNIS
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia - A long-delayed inquiry into the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster will begin public hearings on November 6 in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, within sight of the shattered mine. But it may have to proceed without vital information on the operating and safety record of the mine, including how the explosion that killed 26 miners could have been avoided.
The Canadian and Nova Scotia governments refuse to hand over documents relating to the financing and operation of the mine.
The two governments were involved at the highest level in promoting and financing the Westray mine, owned by the now-bankrupt Curragh Resources Inc. The federal government is withholding 540 documents while its provincial counterpart is keeping 750.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada's federal police force, is also refusing to hand over documents. The RCMP conducted a criminal investigation of the disaster. Charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence were laid in 1994 against Curragh and two managers. The trial ended abruptly in June 1995 when the judge, citing a technicality, took the unusual step of staying the charges.
The Westray mine opened amid considerable opposition because the coal field on which it sat is notorious for large concentrations of methane gas. The mines there have a long and deadly history of explosions. The last one before Westray closed in 1967.
Westray began production in July 1991. Its backers included then Nova Scotia premier Donald Cameron and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney.
After the explosion, an avalanche of media reports documented safety violations that were the norm at Westray - frequent roof collapses, buildups of methane gas and coal dust, use of unsafe mining equipment underground, and tampering with safety equipment. The reports confirmed that labor department inspectors knew what was happening but let the mine owners continue production.
The inquiry has the power to subpoena the secret documents as well as the politicians and businessmen who promoted the mine project. Its head, a Nova Scotia supreme court judge, has not indicated such a plan.
A glimpse into the world of cabinet secrecy was offered on August 29 when the Halifax Chronicle Herald reported on a one-page memo from Nova Scotia labour minister Leroy Legere to officials in his department in October 1991. The newspaper obtained the document following a challenge under the Nova Scotia Freedom of Information Act. Other documents for which it asked were denied.
In response to an October 17 roof collapse at Westray, the fifth since the mine's opening four months earlier, the memo asked for incriminating dirt on the safety record of rival coal mines in Cape Breton, an island region of Nova Scotia.
Legere's department was responsible for enforcing mine safety laws. It came under considerable heat following the Westray mine opening as reports of unsafe conditions underground leaked out.
Legere was looking for information to back his public claims that conditions at Westray were typical of the coal mining industry. He couldn't find any dirt because miners in Cape Breton are members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and have used union power to improve safety conditions over the years.
Presently, 2,200 coal miners work in Cape Breton. They are employed at DEVCO, a federal government corporation.
There was no union at Westray. Miners voted against joining the UMWA shortly after the mine opened. Those who protested the unsafe work conditions were threatened with dismissal or other disciplinary measures.
The public hearings of the inquiry are expected to last several months and will feature the testimony of former miners as well as members of the families of the miners who died. The families have fought for a full public accounting.
Roger Annis is a member of Local 841 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada in Montreal.
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