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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Feds Say Massey Hid Safety Problems at Coal Mine Where 29 Died

Published: August 11, 2012


By Jeff Young


Gone but not forgotten. Massey Energy’s logo disappeared when the company was sold this month. But Massey’s legacy of poor workplace safety and environmental destruction remains.

Investigation shows company kept two separate sets of books, and chronic safety hazards that might have contributed to disastrous explosion were kept out of official record.

By Jeff Young

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, briefed the public today on its investigation of the explosion that killed 29 miners at
Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010, the country’s worst mining disaster in 40 years.

MSHA’s investigation rejects the company’s explanation of an unavoidable, natural buildup of methane gas in the mine. Instead MSHA places the blame squarely on the mining company and its poor safety practices.

“This explosion could and should have been prevented by the mine operator,” MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said.

Stricklin said MSHA’s year long investigation concluded that a small ignition at the mine’s longwall shear, the massive machine that cuts coal and rock, triggered a huge explosion when excess coal dust caught fire. MSHA found safety problems all along the chain of events. Spray nozzles meant to cool the machinery and control dust were clogged or missing altogether. Dust control was inadequate. The air ventilation system showed “chronic problems” in the months before the explosion. A company safety examiner’s gas monitor hadn’t even been turned on for two weeks before the explosion.

And while the company took note of problems in its maintenance logs, the official set of books did not reflect those hazards.

“We found there were two sets of books,” Stricklin explained. “Hazardous conditions were recorded in production reports and not listed in required examination reports.”

Stricklin listed three examples from the month before the explosion where problems with air ventilation, water sprayers and methane gas were mentioned in maintenance logs while the official books listed no hazards.

“Our investigation concluded that chronic hazards were not recorded, that management pressured personnel not to record hazards in the official book,” Stricklin said.

Stricklin gave several examples of “an emphasis on productivity at the detriment of safety.” Upper Big Branch employees were pressured to ignore safety concerns. One was fired for delaying coal production to perform safety-related maintenance on ventilation equipment.

The investigation also found evidence that mine management tried to prevent federal safety inspectors from doing their job.

“Security guards warned management when MSHA inspectors arrived,” Stricklin said. “Inspectors rarely arrived without advanced notice.”

Yet even with that “heads-up” from guards to give management time to cover up problems or distract inspectors, MSHA still issued more corrective orders for the Upper Big Branch Mine than for any other coal mine in the country, Stricklin said. And the number of violations at the mine went up steadily in the year before the explosion.

The MSHA investigation backs up the major conclusions of a previous report by mine safety expert Davitt Mcateer. West Virginia mining officials are still working on a separate investigation. The US Dept. of Justice is also conducting a criminal investigation of the mine disaster. Stricklin noted that 18 members of Massey management refused to cooperate with MSHA’s investigation, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The MSHA results come amidst big changes in the mining business in southern West Virginia. Just weeks ago, Alpha Resources purchased Massey Energy, bringing to an end a company name that had become synonymous with poor worker safety, union-busting and environmental destruction.

It was Massey Energy that set the record for the largest Clean Water Act penalty ever assessed by the EPA, $20 million for repeated water pollution. violations in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Even after that 2008 settlement, the company continued to violate water discharge permits thousands of times.

It was a Massey-owned mine in Kentucky that spilled some 300 million gallons of toxic coal sludge into waterways in October, 2000. The spill tainted some 60 miles of river, forcing towns to shut down water supplies. The EPA called it the biggest environmental disaster in the Southeastern United States at the time.

It was a Massey coal preparation plant that loomed over a West Virginia elementary school, raising health and safety concerns for children.

It was Massey’s mountaintop removal mines that damaged neighboring properties and forced people to abandon their communities.

And it was Massey’s bombastic CEO, Don Blankenship, who became the face of industry excess.
Blankenship fought against environmental and safety regulation, ridiculed those who warned of climate change, and sought political influence through millions in campaign donations.

Six months before the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded Blankenship told a crowd of supporters, “I know that the safety and health of coal miners is my most important job. I don’t need Washington politicians to tell me that, and neither do you.”

Now Blankenship is off the scene, having retired with a multi-million dollar golden parachute. The Massey flags and signs went down at a ceremony, replaced by the Alpha Resources logo. With the Massey purchase, Alpha becomes the country’s second largest holder of coal reserves, with 150 mines and 40 preparation plants.
As Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward notes Alpha’s pledge to “run things right” is at odds with a safety record that, while better than Massey’s, is still quite spotty.

The MSHA investigation of Upper Big Branch is the latest chapter in the Massey story. The Massey legacy of scofflaw culture and corruption, destruction of the land and disrespect for its people has brought disaster and grief to both miners and the environment.

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