Westray Commissioner Takes Parting Shot
Could Haunt Corporate Boardrooms for a Long Time
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Takes Parting Shot
By Kevin Cox
Globe and Mail Atlantic Bureau, Halifax
This article appeared in
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, 9 December 1997
Westray Inquiry Commissioner Peter Richard didn't just get mad at elusive mining executive Clifford Frame for refusing to testify about his role at the Nova Scotia coal mine where 26 men died in May, 1992.
In an 895-page report released last week, the Commissioner did his best to get even.
Mr. Frame, former Chairman of now-defunct mine owner Curragh Inc., and former Westray President Marvin Pelley refused to testify at the Inquiry and successfully appealed every court order that compelled them to do so.
By his obdurate resistance to Inquiry attempts to compel his appearance, Frame conveys a denial of any burden or duty of accountability, wrote the Commissioner, who is a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge.
The men's refusal to testify left a gaping hole in the report of the $5-million Inquiry. With only the words of the miners and government officials to go on, Judge Richard concluded the story of the mine was a complex mosaic of actions, omissions, mistakes, incompetence, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, and neglect. Some well-intentioned blunders were also added to the mix.
None of the 71 witnesses who testified blamed Mr. Frame for the tragedy. No one could say if he knew anything about the myriad of hazardous conditions including explosive levels of methane and coal dust and a crumbling mine roof that were allowed to build up in the mine before the deadly blast.
But in a finding that could haunt corporate boardrooms for a long time, Judge Richard concluded that Mr. Frame should have been accountable for the safety of the workers in a mine that he promoted and for which he secured more than $100-million in public financing.
In attempting to make sure that no other corporate executives can duck a public accounting for workplace tragedies, Judge Richard recommended that the federal and provincial governments work on legislation making company directors and executives accountable for workplace safety.
That's a thorny issue that could make it extremely difficult to attract directors to corporations if they can be held civilly and possibly criminally liable for damages in tragedies such as Westray.
In the case of Westray, the Inquiry estimated that the explosion cost about $105-million in public money, including a $67.3-million loss on a loan guarantee and about $22-million in compensation to the families of the miners and the more than 100 people put out of work.
The recommendation of corporate responsibility for workplace safety was obviously flavoured by the distaste and disdain that Judge Richard expressed for Mr. Frame in the report and during a news conference held to release it last week in Stellarton, Nova Scotia.
He described Mr. Frame as an uncompromising and abusive negotiator who pushed politicians such as former Nova Scotia Industry Minister Donald Cameron into supporting and even promoting the mine.
Mr. Frame was basically a promoter, and once he put the financing together, contrary to what a chief executive officer should do, which is set the stage for the safety ethic in the workplace, he turned his back on it and let it go, Judge Richard told reporters when the report was released.
Immediately after the explosion in May, 1992, Mr. Frame insisted that he was grieving for the dead men and told reporters that Curragh would devote our energy and resources to co-operating with Judge Richard's Inquiry.
It seems that the only thing that has changed since that comment is the realization by Frame that he has much to answer for, the Judge wrote.
The Judge was also angered by Mr. Frame's comments to a Globe and Mail reporter in February 1997. Mr. Frame, who is trying to make a comeback in the mining business with Mineral Resources Corporation of Toronto, said the Westray tragedy was a simple accident and that the Inquiry wasn't interested in what he had to say.
Mr. Frame has never publicly stated what Curragh's investigation determined caused the explosion. But the information is likely to emerge at trials of mine manager Gerald Phillips and underground manager Roger Parry. They face charges of criminal negligence and manslaughter in the deaths of the 26 miners.
Clearly Clifford Frame appears motivated by a desire to preserve what remains of an already badly tarnished reputation as a businessman and entrepreneur, the Judge wrote.
But an apparently unrepentant Mr. Frame insisted in a statement last week that human error was responsible for the tragedy and that he will continue to grieve for the men who died. I sincerely hope that the desire to assign blame has not obscured the need to state the definitive cause of the accident and show us all how to prevent its recurrence.
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First uploaded: 1997 December 14