Musings on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Westray Mine Disaster
On Industry: Musings on the twentieth anniversary of the Westray Mine Disaster
Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.
By Heidi Mitton; May 10, 2012 - Halifax Media Co-op
Truro, Nova Scotia - I was eight years old on May 9, 1992, when my father was summoned to the rescue team at the Westray mine. I have patchy memories of my brother, sister and I milling around in the homes of relatives with news coverage and my concerned mother drifting in the background. All day long, it seemed, the television was broadcasting the mine's damaged entrance and wreckage. I remember trying to see if we could catch a glimpse of my Dad. As children, we didn't understand the risk our father was facing. And we certainly didn't understand why, though my Dad would eventually make it home to his family, the twenty six men who had been underground when the methane gas explosion went off would not be going home to theirs.
Even as adults, the official reason for the disaster must strike us as senseless. The poor design and ventilation of the mine were insufficient in keeping methane and coal dust at acceptable levels, so much so that the methane detectors had been regularly disabled because they were sounding too often. From its opening in September 1991, the mine was feared to be very dangerous. Worker concerns and safety abuses were overlooked by management, and the Departments of Natural Resources and Labour neglected to enforce safety regulations. The disaster could have been prevented, and in the words of the report from the public enquiry into the disaster, the mine was “an accident waiting to happen.” Though charges were pressed against some members of the company's management, no convictions were made.
I often wonder if, bearing witness to the aftermath of the explosion, the rescue teams pondered such blatant disregard for their fellows, or the possibility that they could be in similar danger. The legislative legacy of the disaster, the federal Westray Law, holds corporations criminally liable if workers are injured or killed. But today, Canadians post-Westray are not any safer in the workplace. On average, five Canadians still die every day from work-related injuries or illnesses, a forty-five per cent increase from 1993. It seems our priorities have changed little.
These tragedies reflect the perils of a capitalist economy ever more concerned with profit, and less concerned with the well-being of its citizens or the ecological systems that sustain us. The root causes of worker fatalities are distorted because the majority of us remain dependent on this economy in order to make a living--the mine was welcomed in the community of Plymouth, Nova Scotia with promises of providing 300 much-needed jobs. Though in the past we've been able to successfully negotiate and legislate in order to curb the excesses of industry with policies like the Westray Law, the present global trend is toward weakening safety and environmental laws, union busting, and growing inequality. So much so that, while sectors of the working class manage to bargain with industry in North America, the livelihood and survival of many communities around the world hinges on resisting industrial mega-projects in the first place.
I could not shake this dissonance from my mind when, a little over a month ago, as international accompanier's, my colleagues and I observed a demonstration of campesino and indigenous groups in Guatemala City. Thousands of men, women, children, elders and students, some of whom had marched 214 kilometres in unbearable heat over ten days, were protesting big development projects on their lands. Mining, hydroelectric energy, cement, and other industries are threatening the everyday lives of people and ecosystems throughout Central America and indeed, all over the world. As I listened to the chants, to the protest songs, and absorbed the hope and determination surrounding me, it occurred to me that the very industries that devastate so many would have, during my decidedly working class upbringing, been my bread and butter.
In the case of Westray, we learned that we could not trust in the goodwill of industry to prevent worker deaths. Internationally, even more deplorable tragedies occur daily because we cannot trust that corporations will respect democracy and rights in so-called developing countries. Resource extraction companies take advantage of lax environmental, safety, and human rights policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, profiting their investors while citizens absorb the human and environmental costs. For instance, in western Guatemala, fifty-four mining licenses were issued in the last year alone, in spite of referendums and community consultations opposing them. By evicting people from their lands, hijacking the water supply, contaminating rivers and groundwater, and violently suppressing opposition to their presence, mining and other resource extraction industries drive neo-colonialism and ever more intensified exploitation of humans and natural resources.
I fear that the system's complex layers of nationality, class, and privilege have succeeded in dividing and blocking the pursuit of justice. As Canadians, however inadvertently, we gain from deforestation, illnesses, deaths and displacements in Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, the Congo, and on indigenous lands here at home, to name just a few locations. The Canadian mining industry is one of the world's biggest, and it is linked to our standard of living through mutual and pension funds. Our companies have drawn international criticism for fueling repression and wars. In 2010, a private members' bill to hold Canadian companies legally responsible for human rights and other violations was strongly opposed by the mining lobby, and narrowly defeated in parliament. But voluntary measures have proven insufficient: a report from Mining Watch Canada documenting 171 violations of corporate responsibility standards indicates that Canadian companies break these standards four times as often as others. The question that I cannot forget is this: Can I, and can we who are connected to these violations, forget the short-term benefits they afford and oppose these atrocities?
Such injustice is enabled by the widespread notion, successfully implanted by the corporate-owned media and decades of lobbying, that the unrestrained drive for greater profit benefits us all. We are told the conquest of lands and resources is progress. We are told that the erosion of democratic control over livelihoods is efficient. We are told that the idea of sustainable energy use is frivolous. But many of us have stopped listening. As economic reforms render our wages more precarious, as pollution from resource extraction threatens the planet, as we learn that workplace fatalities and expropriation of lands have a common source, we must speak up and change the narrative. We must transcend the divisions that have been wedged between us and harness the political and popular will to fight for life over profit.
I came home more confused than ever over what, exactly, we can do to change our destructive relationship with the planet and with each other, before it's too late. But at the very least, it is crucial that we continue resisting the ideological hold that neo-liberal capitalism has on public discourse. Not only because of our responsibilities to humanity and to nature, but also because if we don't, the number of casualties will grow, and the tragic crimes of corporate hegemony will continue to come home.