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Westray tragedy to be marked, 25 years later: ‘A uniquely Nova Scotian story and tragedy’

An investigator examines an ambulance tractor inside the Westray mine in this RCMP handout photo.
An investigator examines an ambulance tractor inside the Westray mine in this RCMP handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

When the Westray coal mine opened in northern Nova Scotia in 1991, Glenn Martin was lucky enough to land a well-paying job underground that was supposed to last 15 years.

READ MORE: Campaign calls on employers to create safer working conditions

However, he soon learned the mine under Plymouth, N.S., was not a safe place to work. He promised himself he would quit as soon as he had earned enough money to put new siding on his home.

“That mine was a godsend to him,” said his brother, Allen. “He wanted to fix up his house. That was his main goal … But it didn’t take long for him to realize that things were not right.”

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In the pre-dawn darkness on May 9, 1992, Glenn Martin was killed along with 25 other miners when a deadly combination of methane gas and coal dust ignited, sending a huge fireball through the tunnels. Homes more than a kilometre away shook as a blue-grey flash lit up the night sky.

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Twenty-five years later, as local residents prepared to mark the grim anniversary, Allen Martin recalled how his brother, who loved to hunt and fish, was only two days away from his 36th birthday when he died.

“He was a good guy,” Martin said, adding that commemoration ceremonies planned for Tuesday above the exact blast site in New Glasgow, N.S., are important for promoting workplace safety.

“Twenty-five years later, there’s one or two generations of people in the workforce who don’t know what Westray is,” said Martin, a spokesman for the Westray Families Group. “If we don’t keep it alive, they are not going to know … It’s important for their personal safety.”

Halifax lawyer John Merrick, lead counsel for the public inquiry that investigated the tragedy, said the miners who died would probably want Canadians to remember that what happened at Westray could have been prevented.

“That’s why it was such a tragedy,” Merrick said.

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“They didn’t have to have their lives ended like that. It was the result of a whole series of failures that, the inquiry found, wove a fabric of disaster. Their advice to us today would be to take that lesson to heart and never to forget it.”

In 1997, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Peter Richard issued a report that concluded the disaster was the result of “incompetence, mismanagement, bureaucratic bungling, deceit, ruthlessness, coverups, apathy, expediency and cynical indifference.”

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Richard concluded Westray management and its owner, Clifford Frame, were ultimately responsible for conditions at the mine, and he also blamed bureaucrats who tolerated poor safety practices.

As well, he found there was little safety training at the mine, ventilation was poor and the mine’s methane detectors were often broken. Mine managers ignored orders to reduce volatile coal dust, and rockfalls went unreported.

“It involved management that was in over their heads with the technique of mining they were using,” Merrick said. “It was politicians getting involved in things they shouldn’t have gotten involved in. It was regulators and long-term inspectors who did not properly do their oversight.”

The legacy of Westray is particularly potent in Nova Scotia, where the dirty and dangerous work of coal mining has been a way of life for centuries.

“It wasn’t just a workplace safety story, and it wasn’t just a story of wrongdoing or negligence,” said Merrick. “It was a human story that involved the people of Nova Scotia … It touched us in a way that many other disasters might not have. Westray was a uniquely Nova Scotian story and tragedy.”

Stephen Hunt, western Canadian director for the United Steelworkers of America, said the union has been fighting to make companies more accountable for their actions when workers are killed, injured and fall ill at the workplace.

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“In this case, the predictable path to disaster, as Justice Richard called it, was so predictable and so obvious,” said Hunt, who testified at the inquiry.

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“That woke us up. Twenty five years later, we’re still fighting the fight … Greed does not trump life. And the Westray mine was pure, unadulterated greed – and that took lives.”

When the so-called Westray Bill became federal law in 2004, it gave police and prosecutor new rules for attributing criminal liability to corporations and their representatives when workers are injured or killed on the job.

It has been used in criminal prosecutions several times, but there have been only a few convictions.

Last month, the federal government said it would provide better enforcement of the Westray law.

In late April, underground coal mining resumed in Nova Scotia after a 16-year hiatus when the Donkin mine in Cape Breton started operations.