Story of Westray dangers should have been told

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Andrew Mitrovica – May 9, 2012

I owe the people of Pictou County, N.S., an apology. In particular, I owe a long overdue apology to the families of the 26 miners who perished in the Westray coal mine explosion that took place 20 years ago Wednesday.

I need to apologize because for two decades I have harboured a regret. I have carried this regret with me from the morning I heard via a news bulletin by former CBC newsman Knowlton Nash that there had been a devastating explosion at the mine.

This regret becomes more acute with each passing anniversary. The images of the friends and family of the miners who died — 11 of whom remain entombed in the mine — flash through my mind’s eye every May 9.

I have to apologize because I remain convinced that, at the time, I was perhaps in a position to have prevented the catastrophe. That may seem to be self-aggrandizing hyperbole to some, but I believe it to be true.

Why?

In the early 1990s, I was an associate producer for the CBC newsmagazine, the fifth estate. Back then, the program was watched by millions of Canadians. As a result, the fifth estate was capable of influencing people and shaping events. During its long, sometimes illustrious history, the investigative program has had the power to effect change, including freeing the innocent, exposing the corrupt, causing politicians of a variety of political pedigrees to resign.

The awareness that the fifth estate could exert such life-altering power prompted a determined Nova Scotia reporter, Betsy Chambers, to contact host Linden MacIntryre, a Cape Breton native. She urged Linden to cast a critical eye on the Westray mine.

Born out of a politically expedient union of a Toronto-based businessman and local, provincial and federal politicians, the Westray mine was touted as the future of coal mining in Nova Scotia.

Its political and business cheerleaders held up the mine as a model for how a privately operated mine would eclipse the province’s old government-run mines. Westray, they confidently predicted, would feature state of the art technology, a secure source of quality coal and, above all else, a safe workplace where lucrative jobs would be created in a part of the country thirsting for jobs.

But Betsy convinced Linden that that rosy construct belied the truth. Linden enlisted me to take a look. At first, I was reluctant to pursue the lead since I had other, seemingly more flamboyant stories on my plate. But, after writing and talking to Betsy at length, I, too, became skeptical of the official assurances.

In the end, I helped produce a documentary about the mine that revealed, in part, the extent to which powerful politicians were intent on ensuring that Westray was a success despite troubling questions about the mine’s genesis and economic viability.

The documentary also hinted at simmering safety concerns, but these were not featured prominently because, as Linden later explained, the program didn’t want to be accused of fear mongering.

In any event, the revelation that garnered the most media attention was the quiet awarding of a more than $1-million sole-sourced contract for work at Westray to the Conservative leadership campaign chair of the provincial industry minister, who was one of the mine’s biggest boosters.

Local reaction to the story was swift and unflattering. Conservative politicians and some influential media accused the fifth estate of trying to nix a coal mine that offered hope to a region desperate for it. When the scandal’s embers inevitably faded, save for Betsy’s dogged reporting, much of the media lost interest in Westray and the mine opened with largely uncritical media fanfare.

In the weeks that followed the documentary’s broadcast, however, I heard from sources close to the mine that I had cultivated during the research of the original documentary. They told me in off-the-record conversations of other questionable business dealings at the mine; the apparent failure to meet production quotas; and, most serious all, safety violations.

I drafted a story proposal to the fifth estate’s then senior executives, arguing that we revisit Westray with a view to producing another documentary. Unfortunately, the program’s editors were unconvinced. I read that memo time and again. I deeply regret not making the safety concerns I heard — from frequent rockfalls, to untreated combustible stone dust — the principal focus of that fateful memo.

In retrospect, the fault not to pursue another story didn’t lie with my editors, but ultimately with me. I was effectively told by a variety of sources that the mine was, in all likelihood, going to end in disaster. I should and could have done more. I should have written that damn warning in bold, capital type at the top of my story proposal. But I didn’t because I reasoned that it was hard to prove something disastrous might occur.

I have heard it argued that journalists should not be preoccupied with the human consequences of their actions. I don’t subscribe to this view. I had a responsibility to tell the truth about the Westray mine before it blew up. I failed to do that. If I had, perhaps a tragedy would have been averted.

So I end as I began, with an apology to the loved ones of the miners being remembered today.

Andrew Mitrovica is a former Globe and Mail investigative reporter and former associate producer and producer at the fifth estate and W5, respectively.

Original article on Ottawa Citizen website