LEGACY OF DESPAIR
AS THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF A TRAGEDY APPROACHES, CONTROVERSY STILL SWIRLS AROUND THE WESTRAY CASE
It was an unseasonably cold spring night as the early evening customers began arriving at the bar at the Heather Hotel in Stellarton, N.S. And by 7:30 p.m., the dimly lit room was half full, as the beer and liquor flowed and the conversation warmed to a familiar theme—the future of the Westray coal mine, whose white and blue buildings and giant conveyor belts loomed in the dark a few kilometres away. Sitting at the oak bar cradling a drink in his thick fingers, Richard Rouse—six-foot-two and 285 lb.— ticked off the reasons for reopening the mine, idled by the underground explosion that killed 26 men last May 9. “There is no question that we can make this a safe operation,” concluded Rouse, who became Westray’s general manager in January after 31 years running mining projects across North America. At a nearby table Randy Facette, the local president of the United Steelworkers Union of America, which represented 120 of the workers at the mine, could hardly contain his frustration. “God damn politics,” said the miner whose unemployment insurance runs out at the end of June, “that’s all that’s keeping my men from going back to work.” From the beginning, the Westray coal mine has been a creature of politics. And as the first anniversary of the tragedy approaches, a widening cloud of controversy darkens the Westray case while politicians in both Halifax and Ottawa gear for elections this fall. A 10member RCMP team, based in Truro, prepared to close an investigation with a decision on whether to lay criminal charges. A provincial judicial inquiry into the disaster, under a court order to delay public hearings until after any criminal cases are tried, or dropped, catalogued thousands of pages of documentary evidence
about the whole Westray affair.
Gerald Phillips, the man replaced by Rouse as the mine’s general manager, is working on a company post-mortem in the Toronto head office of Curragh Inc., Westray’s owner. In the same highrise headquarters, Clifford Frame, Curragh’s chairman, chief executive officer and major shareholder, casts about for funds and government help to reopen Westray—and his Yukon basemetal mines—after gaining court-approved protection from creditors until the end of June.
It is Frame’s opinion, expressed in an interview with Maclean’s, that his recovery plan is being held up by “the high-profile politics of it.”
Frame encouraged the presence of politics in his enterprise when he successfully lobbied for government financial aid. The tangled Westray drama was played out in. the office of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and among some of the most influential politicians in Ottawa and Halifax. Even before the fatal accident last May, rival mine promoters complained about favoritism by governments; politicians voiced repeated warnings of unsafe mine conditions; and federal bureaucrats cautioned Ottawa about offering too much financial backing to the ill-fated project. But the project received the political go-ahead, despite the warning signals.
Eugene Johnson’s destiny was foretold long before he was born. His great-grandfather and his grandfather both died working the rich, violent coal seams of Pictou County, which have claimed the lives of more than 600 miners from accidents since 1838. His father, who lived to talk about it, made his living clawing coal from the same black seam. By the time Eugene turned 19, he was a strapping, fearless six-footer with a shock of red hair and a thick mous-
tache. More than just about anything in the world, he wanted to don a miner’s helmet and follow his forebears underground. Not suprisingly, when a job came up in 1978 at a deep mine in his home town ofWestville, N.S., he jumped at it.
The studied elegance of Clifford Frame’s office in the heart of Toronto’s business district is a long way from the bowels of a mine shaft. Despite the dark suit, matching green tie, handkerchief and cuff links he wore one morning last month, Frame is still unmistakably the man who started out as a mine shift boss before building Curragh Inc. into one of the world’s biggest lead and zinc exporters. The mining business? “I love it,” he said. ‘This is my vocation, my avocation, my spare time.”
Frame’s ability to persuade governments to finance and nurture his endeavors is legendary in the business world. His talent came into full play after the Nova Scotia Pow-
er Corp., the provincial electrical utility, made plans in the middle 1980s to build a new 160-megawatt coal-fired power generator in Trenton, a community amid the gentle, rolling hills—and the coal deposits— of Pictou County. Complicating matters, however, was the Canada-Nova Scotia Acid Rain Agreement, signed in 1989, which required the utility to cap its sulphur emissions at 145,000 tons a year by 1994.
To run most of its other generators, the power company simply bought Cape Breton coal, mined by the heavily subsidized Cape Breton Development Corp. (DEVCO), a federal Crown corporation. But the DEVCO coal was relatively high in sulphur. And adding scrubbers to cut emissions in the proposed generator—to be known as Trenton No. 6—and the existing, Trenton No. 5 facility, which burned Cape Breton coal,
would have cost Nova Scotia Power another $160-million.
Instead, the power company was eyeing the coal from the nearby Foord seam around Stellarton, which was known to contain coal of lower sulphur content and an estimated 45 million tons of reserves—even if it was considered by some authorities to be one of the most dangerous coal seams in the world because of its high concentration of potentially explosive methane gas. If the plan worked out, DEVCO, a 1967 child of the federal Liberals in staunchly Liberal Cape Breton, would be left to find other markets for its coal. In the agreement that set up DEVCO, the Nova Scotia government agreed to refrain from issuing new coal mining permits without DEVCO’s consent until 1982.
After that agreement expired, the question was: who would develop a new coal mine in
not be pushed around by.” From the beginning, the Curragh chairman made it perfectly clear that if he were to go ahead with a project, he would need financial help from the province and Ottawa. “The province and the feds gave me the encouragement,”
tions about Coalcor’s financing, announced in December, 1987, that it had decided to sell to Curragh—even though the company had never developed a coal mine before and had bid only $7.2-million.
The province’s eagerness to announce
Frame recalled. “If I didn’t have that encouragement, I wanted nothing to do with that project.”
By late 1987, only three firms were still in the running for Suncor’s Pictou property: Toronto-based Esso Resources Ltd., Coalcor Resources Inc.— a joint venture between two Cape Breton businessmen and Davey McKee, a large international mine engineering outfit—and Curragh.
But Curragh quickly emerged as the favorite. David Rose, a Sydney, N.S., financial consultant and one of the principals in Coalcor, told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald that when the Coalcor bid was steered to Donald Cameron, the MLA for Pictou East, which encompasses the Westray mine, Cameron told him that there would have to be a change of government before Coalcor got the property.
In truth, though, any deal was contingent upon having a sales agreement with Nova Scotia Power, since the provincial utility was the only viable market for the coal. Each company held discussions with the power company. It, in turn, told Suncor which outfit it felt was most likely to fulfil its needs. In the end, Esso offered to pick up a six-month option on the property. Coalcor offered to buy the property outright for $8 million. But Suncor, which had raised ques-
the new mine was almost palpable. Details, however, kept getting in the way. For months after the sale, Westray remained locked in negotiations over provincial mining leases and a financial aid package from the federal department of industry, science and technology. Then, in the midst of those negotiations Buchanan called a Sept. 6 election.
The Tories needed all the help they could get as they sought their fourth mandate. The government had been rocked by a wave of mishaps and scandals. According to the pollsters, the opposition Liberals were running neck-and-neck with the government in public popularity. Cameron, moreover, was in the midst of a close battle to hold onto his Pictou East seat with Liberal candidate Wayne Fraser, a New Glasgow stockbroker.
What the pollsters did not foresee, however, was the report that emerged five days before election day, when Westray Coal Inc., a Curragh subsidiary, announced a $127-million mine that it planned to develop in Plymouth, across the river from Stellarton, creating 300 jobs. On Sept. 2, Cameron, then the provincial industry minister, announced a $12-million provincial loan for the mine and Elmer MacKay, the federal revenue minister who represented the Pic-
Conditions were primitive in the Westville mine in 1978. But Eugene Johnson loved everything about the job—rising at 6 a.m. to begin the shift, the tough, demanding work that involved using pick and shovel to harvest the coal, as well as the quiet pride that he and the other miners shared in their work. “We are the Westville miners, so tall and so proud,” the amateur songwriter once wrote in a lyric. “I’ll say it again and we’ll say it out loud.” When the mine flooded in 1984, he was forced to take a job driving a truck. But, as he told his wife, Donna, his dream was always to return underground.
Frame, in many ways, seemed to be just what the Nova Scotia government ordered. The government was well aware of how he used his uncanny ability for raising capital to resuscitate the mothballed lead-zinc project in Faro, Yukon. Recalls Frame, who met twice with Buchanan: ‘They wanted somebody they thought they could work with and
Pictou, which saw its last underground shaft close in 1984? Three years earlier, Suncor Inc., the Toronto-based oil and mining giant, bought the leases to a property on the Foord seam. After five years of exploratory drilling and evaluation, engineers presented a mine development plan to the Suncor board. By then, though, the company considered the project uneconomical, and the board turned down the proposal and put its interests up for sale. In 1986, Placer Development Ltd., a Vancouver-based mining company, purchased a one-year option on the property, but eventually decided not to proceed with development.
As months passed, no permanent buyer emerged. That was distressing news to John Buchanan, the avuncular premier of Nova Scotia. He wanted to create new jobs in Pictou County, which perenially suffers from an unemployment rate in the 20-percent range. As a result, he called an old friend—Robert Coates, the Tory MP for Cumberland-Colchester, bordering Pictou County, who had left his cabinet post as federal defence minister after visiting a strip club in Lahr,
Germany, in 1985. Coates, an MP from 1957 through 1988, who also served as president of the federal Progressive Conservative party, was well-connected. He arranged a meeting between Buchanan and a mining executive he had first met in the mid-1970s through Stephen Roman, the founder of mining giant Denison Mines Ltd. His name: Clifford Frame.
tou County riding of Central Nova in the House of Commons, announced a package from Ottawa that included a $107-million loan guarantee as well as an interest buy-down. “I guess it’s a deal,” the beaming Cameron declared at the news conference, in what turned out to be a premature boast. All the same, he had much to be happy about. When the polls closed on Sept 6, he held onto his seat by just 753 votes. The other two provincial ridings in Pictou County also returned Tories, and the Buchanan government returned to power with a mere fourseat majority as their 40 seats in the legislature dropped to 28.
were not certified coal miners, as well as special explosives and electrical equipment.
Then, just when everything seemed to be going Westray’s way, problems surfaced. Behind the scenes in Ottawa, federal bureaucrats were having second thoughts about its involvement. As a senior official at the federal de-
Eugene Johnson’s father voted Tory, as did his grandfather. Predictably, on Sept.
6, 1988, he followed the wellestablished pattern and voted for John Buchanan’s Progressive Conservative government. After all, Johnson was ecstatic when he heard a few days before the election that a new deep mine was to open in Pictou County. He had spent the past few years working at a surface strip mine in Westville. But he found the work tedious. Now, finally, he had a chance to go back underground.
Recently, a year after the Westray explosion, an aide to Donald Cameron was polite but adamant. In response to an interview request from Maclean’s, an aide to the premier of Nova Scotia said that Cameron was not interested in discussing his role in the development of the Westray mine. Cameron, who became premier on Feb. 9, 1991, after John Buchanan accepted a Senate appointment from Prime Minister Mulroney, has always denied that Westray received undue favoritism from the Nova Scotia Tories. “If people want to look at the facts, then I am quite happy,” Cameron told Maclean’s during an earlier interview. “If they want to believe the politics, that’s fine.”
All the same, the Nova Scotia government’s generosity to Westray in the months after the mine was announced is clear. Within three days of the election, the company received the right of first refusal to a strip mine on the outskirts of Stellarton. Soon after, Westray signed a 15-year deal to sell 700,000 tons of coal annually to Nova Scotia Power at prices between $60 and $74 per ton. Then, on Feb. 17, 1989, Westray won exemptions under the provincial Coal Mines Regulations Act to dig two rock tunnels leading to the coal itself. To do that, the government allowed the company to use workers who
partaient of energy, mines and resources at the time recalls, ‘To be quite blunt, there was not a bureaucrat in the federal government who wanted the project to go ahead.” Trying to break the impasse, Cameron brought two mayors, a deputy mayor and the warden of Pictou County to Ottawa in April,
1988, to make their pitch to Robert de Cotret, then federal minister of regional industrial expansion—and for a 10-minute audience with Mulroney. Recalls Barry Trenholm, the mayor of Trenton: “We only spoke of the project in a very general way.” Stirring the pot were politicians from the Liberal bastion of Cape Breton who complained loudly about the government’s decision to fund a mine that would compete with Cape Breton coal. Underlining their public point was an internal memo from DEVCO to the federal and Nova Scotia governments that warned that Westray coal threatened hundreds of jobs in the Cape Breton mines. Equally disconcerting, though, were DEVCO’s reminders that the Foord coal seam was subject to spontaneous combustion. That point was also raised briefly in a survey of previous studies conducted by the Canada Centre for Mineral and Energy Technology, an arm of the federal energy department.
Even so, by mid-1989, the project had ground to a halt while Westray, which had spent $17 million in start-up costs, awaited word on the federal funding. In the political backrooms, however, there was plenty of activity. The project’s Ottawa point man was Elmer MacKay, who has enjoyed a close relationship with Mulroney ever since a 1983 byelection when he stepped down to allow the future prime minister to run in his Central Nova seat. The Prime Minister’s Office also seemed to be on-side. An internal memo dated March 3, 1989, from Marvin Pelley, Westray’s executive vicepresident for mining, quotes Buchanan, the Nova Scotia premier, as saying that “The Prime Minister will not likely give a direct order to get this thing done, but rather will continue to play the role of the facilitator.” Curragh documents show that Peter White, the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, and Stanley Hartt, Mulroney’s chief of staff, were informed of the progress of meetz ings between Curragh execug tives and government officials.
I Frame and Curragh were likely ly well-known in Ottawa. Elec5 tions Canada records show that, I between 1987 and 1991, Curragh “ and a company called Frame
Mining Corp. contributed a total
of $35,780.80 to the federal Conservative party. But they also gave $27,000 over the same period to the Liberals, including $12,000 in 1990 and 1991, more than three times the amount donated to the Tories in those two years.
Nova Scotia Tories also lobbied heavily in Ottawa on behalf of Curragh. Buchanan personally raised the issue with Mulroney. So did Donald Cameron. By then, the whole issue had the appearance of just another parochial political battle. The Pictou politicians—Cameron and MacKay—publicly rebuked federal civil servants, whom they blamed for the roadblock. Meanwhile, in the Nova Scotia legislature and the House of Commons, Cape Breton politicians, led by Liberal MLA Bernard Boudreau and Liberal MP David Dingwall, repeatedly attacked the mine from a technical and financial standpoint.
Despite those complaints, and some concerns in the federal bureaucracy, Ottawa chose to back the project. In June, 1990, the department of industry, science and technology guaranteed 85 per cent of a $ 100-million loan to Curragh from the Bank of Nova Scotia and provided an interest-rate buy-down—in effect, a promise that Ottawa would assume the extra cost if interest rates climbed—worth roughly $9 million. Federal bureaucrats and Cape Breton politicians were not the only people unhappy with the decision. The 1992 auditor general’s report, for one, noted that the public was actually committed to 103 per cent of the mine’s net preproduction costs, and pointed out that “special projects like these often involve significant risks.” Ottawa also provided $3.6 million as a start-up development subsidy, and $700,000 in research and development funding.
The federal government did try to secure its interests. De Cotret told Frame that to win his support, Westray had to find a market for roughly 300,000 more tons of Pictou coal each year. Cameron came to the rescue. Through an order-in-council, which he recommended, provincial Crown corporation Novaco Ltd. entered into a “take-or-pay” deal under which it was obligated to take 275,000 tons of coal from Westray each year if the company failed to find another buyer. Thanks to the Nova Scotia government, Westray had its sales contracts and Pictou County its new jobs.
A crowd of 400 people watched as Clifford Frame, flanked to his left by Elmer MacKay and to his right by Donald Cameron, cut through the ceremonial ribbon. Sept. 11, 1991, marked the official opening of the Westray mine. But Eugene Johnson spent the day working deep in the mine shaft. After six months on the job, his excitement had begun to fade. He was not a complainer. But at home he told his wife about seeing sections of roof collapse. Her anxiety also grew—to the point that she would panic if he was late coming home from a work shift.
Bernard Boudreau knew all about the roof falls. Even before the official opening, Westray miners had been coming to him with complaints about cave-ins and safety procedures. At first, no one really listened— including Boudreau’s own caucus colleagues, who soon became bored with his persistent campaign against the project.
With some exceptions, the media seemed
uninterested. Even before the mine opened, a July, 1989, series in the Chronicle-Herald raised the safety issue. The following March, The Northern Miner, which paid the closest media attention to the mine’s development, noted that some of the seams in Pictou County were subject to perilous spontaneous combustion.
For the most part, politics—not safety—
grabbed the media’s attention. A 5th estate program, which aired on CBC-TV on Dec. 11, 1990, revealed that Satellite Construction Ltd., a company owned by Eric Barker, a large contributor to Cameron’s 1988 election campaign, had won a $5-million untendered contract to build the spur line and railway bridge at the mine site. The next day, Cameron, then in the midst of a campaign to fill the premier’s chair left vacant when John Buchanan entered „ the Senate, lashed out at t the “hatchet job.” Still, the z bad press did not stop him Q from winning the leadership of the Tory party, on Feb. 9,1991.
Before long, his old nemesis, Boudreau, was back—badgering the new premier about a roof collapse in late May, raising the exemptions that Westray had gained from provincial mining regulations and questioning the safety record at Frame’s lead-zinc mine in Faro. Cameron and his government, for the most part, dismissed his questions. ‘They [the Liberals] are not concerned about the safety of the miners, they just want to blame someone over there,” declared Labor Minister Leroy Legere in July, 1991. “As long as they can find blame, they are satisfied.” The government reacted in a similar fashion in October when Boudreau called for the mine to be closed, after learning about two more cave-ins.
All the same, there were unmistakable signs of problems below the surface. That same month, the Halifax correspondent for two Thomson News-owned dailies, the Cape Breton Post of Sydney and the New Glasgow Evening News, wrote a story telling of a few miners who had quit their jobs at Westray because of safety concerns. As it turned out, the problems ran much deeper. Inspection reports later made public reveal that after a provincial mine inspector visited the mine on Sept. 26 and noted a high level of coal dust
and poor roof conditions, he said that “some of the men I spoke to are very concerned about the condition of the mine.” He recommended that an independent consultant be brought in to do a study of the mine. A month later, labor department officials held a meeting at the mine to discuss roof conditions and the seven falls that had occurred since development work began in 1989.
At the time, Westray outlined a number of steps it was going to take to improve conditions. By then, though, the company had other problems. It began delivering coal to Nova Scotia Power in September, but the early deliveries had an unacceptably high ash content. Meanwhile, Curragh was in a financial squeeze: a 10-week strike at the Faro operations along with plunging zinc and lead prices ate into revenues. For the year ending Dec. 31, 1991, the company lost $98 million compared with a profit of $32 million for the previous year. Desperate for money, Frame put Westray on the auction block in late October. Then, once again, the Nova Scotia government came to his rescue.
Early on Jan. 6,1992, residents on the outskirts of Stellarton awoke to the sound of earth-moving equipment in their backyards. Strip mining has long been a contentious issue in Pictou County. Back in the late 1970s, another company, George Wimpey Canada Ltd., ran into resistance when it tried to mine the surface coal on the edge of Stellarton. Among the early opponents: MLA Donald Cameron, who raised environmental concerns about the project.
As premier, however, he took a different view of things. Two months earlier, the Nova Scotia government had passed an order-in-
council that granted a mining lease to the property to Westray. Waiving the usual environmental approval requirements, Westray was then allowed to take a 100,000-ton “sample” from the mine to use in a test burn at one of the Trenton plants.
The ensuing uproar forced the government and Curragh to promise a full environmental assessment if they chose to develop the strip mine. Yet by April, Curragh had applied for environmental permits to mine 150,000-200,000 tons a year from the strip mine. And the province’s newly appointed environment minister, Terry Donahoe, had stated that he would not necessarily be bound by his predecessor’s commitments to a full environmental assessment.
Eugene took some razzing from co-workers when his name was chosen from the hat. On April 28, 1991, at a ceremony in Montreal, he was to accept the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum’s coveted John T. Ryan Award for mine safety, which Westray Coal had won. “Everyone who worked down there thought it was sort of a joke,” his wife, Donna, recalled. But the four days they spent staying at the posh Queen Elizabeth Hotel with mine manager Gerald Phillips and his wife, Catherine, were like a dream. The highlight for Eugene: watching a Stanley Cup playoff hockey game at the Montreal Forum, during which the normally solemn miner joined in “the wave. ” When they returned to Westville, Eugene worked one day and then was off for three. Then he was set to start a four-day shift, from May 5 until May 9.
Clifford Frame seemed close to tears as he sat at the table-full of microphones. As TV cameramen and newspaper photographers jostled for position, the Curragh chairman spoke in low tones about his brother, who had died in a mine accident in British Columbia in 1965. It was the evening of May 12—four nights after a methane explosion within the Westray mine shaft triggered a larger coal dust explosion that roared through the tunnels and shook a house 400 m away. Earlier that day, funerals were held for eight of the 11 men whose bodies had been recovered. As he spoke, rescuers continued to inch through the tunnel in search of the remaining 15 buried in the shaft, but in the end they only recovered four more. Frame, who was making his first appearance before reporters, refused to answer questions about mine safety. “My wife has talked to the families on several occasions,” he said. “They’re typical of mining families—they’re strong people. They’re the kind of people I love.”
A day earlier, Donald Cameron had sat at the same table—his face a picture of profound sorrow. “I want
to tell you, if I could have in any way foreseen what has happened here the past two days, I’m sure we all would have made different judgments,” he said. All the same, when reporters asked whether his insistence on pushing the project was somehow responsible for the tragedy, he was obstinate. “There were so many lies told about this particular mine that it is hard to separate it from the facts,” he declared.
The confusion, in truth, was just beginning. The explosion triggered a media feeding frenzy as reporters trotted out a steady stream of miners and experts who alleged that Westray officials failed to properly train workers—and constantly ignored safety in their rush to meet its contract with Nova Scotia Power.
The politicians were also running for cover. Under questioning in the House of Commons, federal cabinet ministers Tom Hockin and Jake Epp admitted that they had heard concerns about methane in the mine. In Halifax, opposition MLAs grilled Nova Scotia Labor Minister Legere, whose department was responsible for mine safety. Legere said that a mine inspector had failed to follow up on an April 29 order to Westray to clean up an “explosive” coal dust problem in the mine. The province’s department of natural resources was also chastened when a Halifax newspaper revealed that the department had approved a new design layout for the mine five months before the explosion— even though officials within the department had safety concerns about the changes.
Inside and outside of the legislature, people demanded an answer to the burning question of why the tragedy had occurred. Cameron’s government responded quickly— the day after the explosion the premier himself announced an independent judicial inquiry into the events surrounding the case.
The labor department launched its own investigation to determine whether provincial safety laws were broken. The RCMP, meanwhile, sealed off the mine shaft and seized dozens of boxes of documents from the Westray offices following allegations that officials had been shredding paper.
The walls, it seemed, were closing in on the company. On June 9, the Bank of Nova Scotia called $15.59 million in loans from Curragh. Frame says that at that time, the company was paying for the cost of recovering bodies of the dead miners. But without coal production, there was no cash flow from the mine. By then, however, Frame’s attentions were fixed firmly on the Wimpey strip mine. Indeed, while visiting Stellarton after the disaster, according to one local official, Frame had taken time out to seek support from local authorities for developing the strip mine.
In early June, Curragh asked to increase output from the open-pit mine to 850,000-900,000 tons a year—enough to replace the anticipated Westray production. Later, the company’s own consultant provided a report on the environmental impact of the open-pit mine. He declared that “any potential environmental impacts of the project can be mitigated by controls.”
As the deadline for a decision on the mine approached, Westray and its supporters—laid-off miners, small businessmen and even I some local church councils—lobz bied for approval of the project. “ They had some powerful allies: Premier Cameron, at one point, hinted that Curragh would be able to repay the $12 million it borrowed from the province in 1990 if it were able to proceed with the open-pit mine.
Clearly, though, Curragh was no longer as welcome in Pictou County as it had once been. Curragh’s professionally managed public relations strategy collided head-on
with a coalition of local townspeople and environmentalists. In the Nova Scotia legislature, the Liberals’ Boudreau accused the government of fast-tracking approval of Wimpey. He was not the only person concerned—a letter to Environment Minister Donahoe from the federal fisheries and oceans department warned that the department “may elect to employ the full force of the Fisheries Act” to ensure that Wimpey was environmentally friendly. On Sept. 3, Donahoe ordered a full environmental assessment of the proposed strip mine.
Eugene Johnson was 33 when he was buried in the Auburn Cemetery. Fittingly, he lies next to Robert Fraser, his friend, co-worker and next-door neighbor, who was 29 when he died in the bottom of the Westray mine. The two usually drove to work together in Eugene’s car. The night of May 8 followed the same practised ritual. When they were ready to leave, Robert left the room so that Eugene could say goodbye to his wife and hug his two sons, Michael, now 11, and David, now 8. “That’s how I’ll always remember him,” says Donna. When the 12hour shift ended, he was due for four days of.
The past 11 months have been a blur for Donna Johnson. Not a day goes by without her thinking about Eugene—or his horrible death near the bottom of the mine. And as she sat one bleak afternoon sharing coffee and cigarettes with Robert Fraser’s widow, Joyce, she was struck by how little has actually happened since that fateful day. On May 9, on a plot of land on the edge of New Glasgow, the two women and the other family members will unveil a statue bearing the names of all 26 victims of the disaster. Yet even then, 11 of the bodies still remain buried underground. And once again, political posturings dominate the public discourse. Declared Johnson: “Sometimes I think that everyone has forgotten that 26 men with wives, children and families actually died in that mine.”
At the approach of the disaster’s anniversary, there are no answers to what happened—only more questions. The judicial inquiry, whose public hearings have been put off until any criminal charges surrounding the explosion are heard, struggled for months to obtain critical documents from Curragh and the federal government. Last month, the provincial department of labor investigation effectively ended when it dropped the last of 52 charges laid in October involving provincial safety law violations against Curragh and four Westray officials. For Johnson and the other Westray widows, the RCMP probe may offer the last remaining hope of finding out what actually happened in the mine. The Mounties expect to decide by the end of the month on whether to lay criminal charges. Two possible offences are being considered: criminal negligence causing death, and manslaughter.
Yet, even as the RCMP weighs its options,
the story’s political implications have again pushed Westray into the public spotlight. Last week, confidential memos circulated indicating that federal cabinet ministers had concerns about funding the mine—and that the Prime Minister’s Office was closely involved in the 1989 negotiations to provide financial backing for the project In Nova Scotia, where an election must be held within months, the opposition Liberals
chance to find additional capital. Curragh hopes to raise $50 million through a preferred-share issue.
Government aid would also help: Curragh has asked the Yukon government to guarantee a $29-million bank loan to develop a property at its Faro mine. Frame says that in Nova Scotia, he needs about $25 million to reopen the Westray mine and find the bodies of the 11 miners who remain underground.
and New Democrats have generally been cautious about trying to win political points from a tragedy that killed 26 people. But last week, a group of jobless Westray miners staged a peaceful sit-in at a government office in Stellarton and demanded that the province approve Westray’s plan to reopen the mine. They complained that they have been political pawns.
But the miners left with no guarantees.
Indeed, talking by phone, Cameron told the miners to take their frustrations out on others, including Liberal supporter Kenton Teasdale, head of the Westray Families’ Group, and a persistent critic of the Cameron government’s role in the project. Teasdale lost his son-in-law in the explosion. “Who does he represent, except himself and the Liberal party?” asked the premier.
Ultimately, though, the biggest question mark in Curragh’s bid to reopen the mine and to begin production at the Wimpey pit is the company’s desperate financial situation. Curragh and its affiliated companies are now carrying close to $300 million in shortand long-term debt. Last week, Curragh filed for court protection from its creditors— a move designed to give the company a
To do that, he wants $16 million in insurance money relating to the accident that an insurance company is holding in trust because the federal government also has a claim on the money. As well, he estimates that he can generate about $10 million in cash flow from the open-pit mine if he is allowed to open it soon. Donna Johnson just shrugs her shoulders at the seemingly never-ending saga. “I just want to get on with my life,” she said. But looking ahead is hard. Each day, she and her sons stare at reminders of what they have lost. They see Eugene’s face in old photographs. They even hear his voice on a treasured tape recording of a song he wrote while happily working at the Westville mine. The last verse is always the hardest to listen to:
“After we finish and our day’s work is done,
we shower up and it is home on the run.
Can’t wait to get there for our darlings to see,
And our children waiting there for me. ”
JOHN DeMONT in Halifax with GLEN ALLEN in Ottawa