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Westray Remembered

Reflecting on the causes of a disaster

by Jim Guild

The Westray Memorial above ground where 11 miners remain trapped in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. (photo: BCameron3 via Wikipedia)
The Westray Memorial above ground where 11 miners remain trapped in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. (photo: BCameron3 via Wikipedia)

On the evening of May 9, 2012 several hundred people gathered under rainy skies at the Westray Memorial Park in New Glasgow to commemorate the explosion that killed 26 miners in 1992. Here are the words of local Presbyterian minister Rev. Glen Matheson, who supported many of the families of miners in the wake of the disaster. 

Some 200 years ago Rev. James MacGregor was credited as being the first to use coal in this region.  Quickly word spread to the British Navy based in Halifax because up to that time they had no source of coal on this side of the Atlantic for their ships.

So began coal mining in Pictou County.

Pictou -- a name the First Nations people use to describe the bubbles you could see in ponds and puddles nearby.

On more than one occasion Rev. MacGregor was known to place a barrel over a puddle that bubbled constantly. When the barrel filled and began to rise up out of the puddle, he would pull out the cork and light the escaping gas. It produced a light blue flame  -- methane. He then bought every piece of pipe in the region, and tried to pipe the gas into his house for heat and light. Fortunately for MacGregor and his family he had only enough pipe and fittings to reach the doorstep and never managed to bring the methane gas indoors.

Along with the beginning of the MacGregor seam, he should also be credited as being the first to recognize the potential of natural gas and methane as a source of heat and light.

In the 1980s, we began to see the effects of acid rain. It was agreed that burning coal with a high-sulphur content was one of the major causes. So construction began on a huge expansion of the Trenton Generating Station that would burn low-sulphur coal. And in nearby Plymouth, work began on a mine –-Westray -- to provide that coal. Low in sulphur, but high in methane.

Methane is a highly explosive gas that seeps out of coal in huge quantities, especially here in Pictou County’s coalfields. To explode, there needs to be a precise mixture of oxygen and methane, and then, a spark. Fresh air is pumped into a coal mine to provide good breathing air for the miners, but also to dilute the methane and keep it from reaching explosive levels.

The 1956 Springhill explosion killed 39 men, and two years later another explosion killed 74. A Royal Commission investigated the deaths. They discovered that just about every coal mine explosion happened on a rainy day. During such low-pressure conditions, a much higher amount of methane escapes from the coal than on a high-pressure day. The Royal Commission ruled that effective immediately every coal mine in Canada must have a barometer, and that this barometer must be carefully observed each shift. WHY? So that during periods of low pressure the amount of fresh air being pumped into the mine was to be significantly increased in order to flush out the methane.

In Springhill, the families and the miners believed that the new rules would ensure make sure this would never happen again.

They were wrong.

There was no barometer at Westray -- and Senior Management had had no concept and no intention of providing additional fresh air on low-pressure days. Nova Scotia’s laws state that: when methane reaches 1% all electricity is to be shut off so as not to create a spark; at 2.5% everyone must be evacuated. Methane is most dangerous – most explosive -- at 9.5%. Hand-held methane detectors read from zero to 5% because the industry could not imagine miners in conditions where methane was higher than 5%.

At Westray, Senior Management felt these rules did not apply to them. According to the inquiry after the Westray explosion, there was no understanding by Senior Management of how to supply fresh air underground. At 1%, electricity was never shut off. At 2.5%, which happened often, the mine was never evacuated. Some days, methane readings were far above 5%. And mining continued. Miners routinely passed out -- or as they say, gassed out -- from lack of oxygen. And still, work was not stopped.

It is recognized in the coal mining industry that coal dust the thickness of a sheet of paper is explosive. At Westray, Senior Management saw nothing wrong with coal dust. The inquiry clearly showed that it was common for coal dust to be ankle deep. It was pushed to the sides or into a crosscut -- pure coal dust three feet deep. More than once underground a bulldozer had to be used to push farm tractors that had gotten stuck in coal dust.

The law gives clear rules on when damaged electrical cables are to be replaced to ensure that there are no sparks. These rules did not apply at Westray.

The law gives clear rules on the use of cutting torches and welding gear in a coal mine. These rules did not apply at Westray.

The law gives clear rules that miners are to work eight-hour shifts. These rules did not apply at Westray.

Often their miners lamps would not last the whole shift. Why? Mining laws prohibit coal miners from working underground for more than eight hours. Therefore their lamps are designed to provide light for 9-10 hours. Westray miners worked 12- hour shifts. The rules did not apply to them.

The law gives clear guidance on the need for an evacuation plan. No such plan existed at Westray.

The law gives clear rules that tunnels can only be dug after very precise details and maps have been approved. At Westray, tunnels changed direction and coal was dug in new areas without approval.

Both the mining community and common sense would assume that at any given moment Senior Management could tell you who was working underground. At Westray they had no idea who was underground when the mine exploded.

One-third of the miners were brand new. They had no experience and they were given no training. One third were hard rock miners. They had no experience with methane or constantly crumbling roofs. And one-third were coal miners with experience. The Inquiry clearly states that Senior Management refused to listen to any advice. The miners’ choice was to work or to quit.

The Inquiry calls the government inspectors "incompetent." And so was their supervisor. In fact, the Supervisor of the inspectors had never read the mining regulations.

The official findings of the inquiry can be summed up with the following quote: “It is a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency, and cynical indifference. It is a tragic story, with the inevitable moments of pathos and heroism. The Westray story concerns an event that, in all good common sense, ought not to have occurred. It did occur. And that is our unfortunate legacy.”

The Inquiry comes to the conclusion that the cutting heads on the continuous miner created sparks. There was not enough fresh air to dilute the methane so, it ignited, creating a rolling methane flame that rolled along the ceiling for hundreds of feet. This devoured all the oxygen, and the miners died not from the explosion but from a lack of oxygen. Disaster Number One.

When the rolling methane flame reached an intersection it got more air and a methane explosion occurred. Disaster Number Two.

The methane explosion stirred up the huge mounds of coal dust and created a completely devastating coal dust explosion. Disaster Number Three.

The remaining miners elsewhere in the mine were killed by the blast. From beginning to end: 20 seconds.

It was fog and drizzle that morning. Low Pressure. It had happened again.

It took hours after the explosion for Senior Management to find out how many were Underground and who they were.

There was no Water Gauge and no barometer -- one was brought in from Cape Breton.

There were no spark-proof tools -- they were brought in from Cape Breton.

There were barely any breathing apparatus -- they were brought from away also.

The community response was unbelievable.

 But nothing can compare to the Draegermen [miners, usually members of a special crew, trained in underground rescue work and other emergency procedures]. They came immediately --without hesitation and without fear. They came strong and bright-eyed. They left physically and emotionally devastated. They left having earned our deepest admiration and our highest respect.

So we gather tonight, in memory of the 26 Westray miners, but also in honour of those who responded when we needed them most.



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