Though tougher laws were passed after the mining disaster, enforcement remains weak.
It was a couple of hours past midnight when Mike Piché walked through the portal to the Westray coal mine. His hard hat didn’t have a head lamp, so it was by flashlight that Piché scanned the surroundings, the sight of cigarette butts, the five-gallon pail lined with a plastic bag and fitted on top with a toilet seat, the coal dust that drifted shin high.
“It’s like stepping in talc,” Piché says of moving through the abundance of black dust that coated the tunnel that April morning, the dust that would explode weeks later, turning the Westray mine into a mortuary for 26 miners, and a permanent sepulchre for 11 of those men.
Piché had been leading an organizing drive for the United Steelworkers that spring 25 years ago. The accounts of production pressures and lax and even nonexistent safety standards at the Nova Scotia mine were legion. He remembers the meeting he had at Roy Feltmate’s place the evening of May 8.
A few of the miners were there, an inside committee had been formed and the union was well on its way to certification with signed cards from 45 per cent of the miners. Feltmate promised to swing by Piché’s room at the Heather Hotel the next day with a few of the other guys. But at 5:18 the morning of May 9 the mine blew apart. Roy Feltmate was never seen again.
The cascading misery from Westray seemed never to end, and it’s worth a pause as the quarter-century anniversary approaches to think very hard about that. The inquiry into the tragedy led by Supreme Court Justice K. Peter Richard was definitive in laying the catastrophe’s root causes, from failures in the mine approval process, to the promotion of workers with little coal mining experience, to a “grossly inadequate ventilation system” to deal with the methane gas for which the Foord coal seam was famous.
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