MAC: Mines and Communities

Blood on the Coal: a special feature

Published by MAC on 2010-04-08
Source: National Public Radio (NPR), MarketWatch, China Worker, Xinhua News Agency, Daily News

Miners die needlessly in China and US

Much of the global media is hailing this week's rescue of 115 Chinese workers, trapped in an underground coal mine, as "miraculous."

Meanwhile, the sudden deaths of 25 workers from an explosion at a US mine has shocked the nation.

But in reality there is little difference between the two tragedies in terms of lack of regulatory oversight. It's unlikely that any of 32 miners, still buried underground in the Wangjialing mine, will now be found alive; six bodies have already been "recovered".

And four workers remain unaccounted for at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

China Worker (part of the Committee for a Workers International) points out that the Shanxi mine, though owned by two state companies, was "operated by migrant construction workers, employed by private contractors; they were not state employees". Although a full probe will take some time, their lives appear to have been sacrificed on various altars of expediency, bulwarked by a virtual absence of trade union rights.

Massey was also employing non-union labour at its Upper Big Branch mine. In 2009 the mine was slapped by the US federal Mine Safety and Health Administration with 458 safety violations - 50 of them for "wilful or gross negligence".

Only last month, another 57 further citations were issued, accusing the company of ventilation failures and "improper escape route plans".

In 2009, Massey executives pled guilty to ten criminal charges, related to another of the company's mines, and were fined $2.5 million. See:

Two different cases, running along parallel lines?

That may be pitching the similarities a little too far - but not that much. While China digs most of its coal from deep beneath the surface, the US relies on strip mining (Peabody Coal being the biggest such practitioner anywhere on earth.)

But, ironically, Massey Coal recently announced that it would concentrate more on underground mining - no doubt partly in response to massive indictments by environmentalists of "mountain top destruction" - of which Massey is the leading proponent.

Last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced rules which ought to see considerable restrictions of this practice. See:

That is, if the new rules are actually enforced.

Massey has been able to escape punishment for numerous past violations, thanks to its well-heeled and often corrupt lobbying. According to a reporter for the New York Daily News, the outfit "was hit with $897,325 in fines last year but has paid only $168,393".

Meanwhile, the mine managers at Wangjialing are reported to have fled the scene; if caught they won't just face huge fines but also lengthy spells in prison.

Last week, on this website, we announced the launch by our Indonesian colleagues of a campaign against "Deadly Coal" See:

Too often, perhaps, we see the impacts of coal use only in terms of its environmental destruction and social dislocation. Of course it is vital to assiduously record each and every such example.

But who would deny that the worst loss, suffered from continued dependency on coal, is of a person's life?

In many respects there is still a yawning geo-political gap between the world's richest state and its most populated one.

When it comes to mining coal, however, there seems to be only a tissue of difference between them.

For more news coverage of the Shanxi coal disaster, see:

Deadly West Virginia Mine Blast Stuns Experts

by Howard Berkes

National Public Radio (NPR)

7 April 2010

The mine explosion in West Virginia and the tragic loss of life have shocked those who pay close attention to coal mine safety. Some had recently marked a mine safety milestone, the nation's safest year ever.

Two weeks ago, a buoyant crowd, including mining executives, federal regulators, union officials and industry journalists, gathered in Washington.


"Everyone was recognizing the fact that last year was in fact the safest year on record for the U.S. mining industry," said Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News. "I can honestly say that everyone in that room never dreamed that this would happen again. We were all thinking that this was behind us and we would never see such disasters befall this country."

At George Washington University, former federal mining regulator Celeste Monforton couldn't believe the news out of West Virginia.

"Someone sent me an e-mail and it said this is a Chinese mine disaster in West Virginia," she said. "I really wonder if we're moving backwards rather than forwards."

Monforton, now an assistant research professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at GWU, helped investigate the Sago mine explosion four years ago in which 12 miners died. Smith, the journalist, has chronicled multiple disasters. Both thought mine safety had progressed, especially after the reforms adopted in response to the Sago tragedy. Smith now is looking back for signs of problems at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.

'Terribly Wrong'

"Massey in general has made great improvements," Smith said. "But I've looked at other Massey operations and there's just certain things at this mine that stick out."

Massey has received repeated citations for failure to abide by federal safety rules. Last year, it had 48. This year, the company had six unwarrantable failure violations. It has also had ventilation violations.

"Something was terribly, terribly wrong," Smith said.

There's something wrong with a regulatory system that doesn't quickly address repetitive violations, says Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who investigated the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters.

"When you see a mine that continues to have large numbers of citations and penalties month after month, the curative effect has not taken hold and that needs to be put in place somehow," McAteer said.

Monforton said what's lacking is vigilance.

"We have not invented new ways to kill our mineworkers," she said. "It's explosions and it's roof falls and it's black lung disease. And the ways to prevent those are also well known."

There is, however, a dismissive attitude, Monforton says, that mining is inherently dangerous, and that mine disasters are part of the historic and cultural fabric of mining communities.

"I would pray that we as a country would get beyond this belief that it just goes with the job," she said. "In my research and in my heart of hearts I know that these types of disasters are 100 percent preventable. But when we continue to have this attitude that this is just part of mining we will never get there."

An Inherent Tension

Neither the Mine Safety and Health Administration nor the National Mining Association nor Massey Energy responded to requests for interviews for this story. Massey CEO Don Blankenship told reporters it's not clear yet what really happened at the Upper Big Branch Mine so it's too early to be specific about failures or reforms.

Still, McAteer says he worries about the pace of response when causes are known. He cites, as an example, a key part of the mine safety law that grew out of the Sago mine disaster.

"There was a study released two weeks ago that suggested that 34 of the nation's 415 underground mines had installed completely a two-way communications system," he said. "This is four-plus years after the Miner Act and we're not where we want to be."

McAteer and others suggest the biggest barrier to consistent safety in mining is something that is inherent in the industry - the tension between productivity and safety. Sometimes, they note, a productive practice that seems safe, encounters negligence or ignorance or an unforeseen set of circumstances that leads to disaster.

Massey CEO to face scrutiny after mine blast

By Mark Peters


7 April 2010

Don Blankenship, the outspoken chief executive of Massey Energy Co., strives to be the defender of the coal business, taking on the issues of climate change and the environment with an intensity that often sets him apart.

However, his aggressive approach may be tested following a deadly explosion Monday at a Massey mine in southern West Virginia. The blast killed at least 25 workers, making it the deadliest U.S. mining disaster in a quarter of a century.

Blankenship's controversial stances, coupled with Massey's dominant position in central Appalachian mining, could leave the company particularly vulnerable to stepped-up regulation that other coal companies may avoid, analysts say. During a decadelong tenure as Massey's chairman and chief executive, Blankenship has collected loyal supporters and made staunch enemies.

"Don is a very polarizing figure," said Brian Gamble, an analyst with Simmons & Co. "He doesn't go with the flow. He definitely stands out in the crowd."

The focus following the mine blast is expected to be on worker safety, after federal regulators had cited the Upper Big Branch Mine for hundreds of violations in recent years. At this point, the cause of the disaster remains unknown as the recovery focuses on four missing miners.

"I've never held back anything for safety, whether that be monies for creativity or equipment or training or facilities," said Blankenship in a local radio interview Tuesday.

A Massey representative declined to comment further.

Blankenship's strongest views have focused on climate change, calling it a hoax and projecting devastating impacts on the U.S. economy if power utilities move away from coal. In the last year, Blankenship has debated Robert Kennedy Jr. on television over the subject and hosted the "Friends of America" rally against federal gas greenhouse legislation starring Ted Nugent. Blankenship made national headlines when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer a West Virginia justice he supported should have recuse himself from a case involving Massey.

The Massey chief executive also has been an outspoken foe of the Obama administration on increased regulations of a surface mining practice in Appalachia in which the tops of mountains are blasted off to expose the coal seams beneath. His opposition to organized labor is another subject where his views clash with the administration.

The mine disaster is likely to prompt increased scrutiny of the coal industry and tougher regulations on underground mining. But in the end, the brunt of any actions could target Massey rather than the wider industry, wrote Kevin Book, managing director of Clearview Energy Partners, a Washington consulting firm, in a note to clients Tuesday.

"This could increase prospects that (the Mining Safety and Health Administration) might target Massey for scrutiny or strong regulatory response without attacking the industry across the board," he wrote, referring to the company's anti-union stance.

A representative of the federal safety agency did not return a call seeking comment.

Additional factors could make Massey, the sixth-largest U.S. coal producer by volume, more susceptible to regulatory actions likely to emerge from the disaster. The sheer size of Massey's position in central Appalachian underground mining means its more likely to be affected by any regulatory changes. At the same time, Congress put in place a series of regulations following the Sago mine disaster in West Virginia in 2006, so the steps in response to the latest tragedy could focus more on inspections and other targeted areas that could hit Massey harder, said Jeremy Sussman, an analyst at Brean Murray, Carret & Co.

For now, the issues Blankenship has battled are likely to recede amid the shock and grief of the explosion. The challenges posed by the explosion ahead have little, if anything, to do with issues Massey has been active on, said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP and an expert on communications.

"Their previous battles are probably the least of their worries," he said.

Still, Maisano added the aggressive stances Blankenship has taken will likely come back into play as the fallout from the explosion moves from the initial grief to understanding what happened and how it can be avoided.

Massey shares, after hitting a 19-month high on Monday, closed 11% lower on Tuesday, at $48.45.

Shanxi coalmine ‘miracle' rescue

China Worker

7 April 2010

Massive media focus attempts to hide cause of calamity: greedy managers and a total absence of workers' rights

An incredible true-life ‘miracle' has gripped China since the first survivors from a coalmine disaster in north China's Shanxi province were lifted to ground level on Monday morning (5 April). After a horrendous 8-day ordeal, trapped below ground as water gushed into the Wangjialing Coal Mine from an adjacent disused mine tunnel, 115 of 153 trapped mine workers were lifted to safety. Rescue workers interviewed by state media paid tribute to the mine workers' perseverance, wits, and optimism.

But behind the media circus and a none-to-subtle attempt by the Chinese dictatorship to claim the credit, there remains the shocking reality of an economy and a political system that denies workers their basic rights and sacrifices lives and welfare for profit. Six Wangjialing workers are confirmed dead and 32 remain trapped in the flooded mine, with hopes of survival fading fast.

The Wangjialing drama has become the biggest TV event in China since the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. CCTV and other networks have broadcast round-the-clock coverage. Millions are naturally moved by the heroism of the rescue workers and the trapped men themselves, and also relieved that a far worse disaster has been averted.

The media has been full of stories of how the trapped workers ate the bark from pine support beams and paper wrappings from explosives in order to survive and how they drank their own urine. Some reportedly built rafts and makeshift platforms to try and keep above the flooding. The workers banded together as a team to fight for their survival.

Older seasoned underground workers gave crucial life-saving advice to their younger workmates and boosted morale with stories of successful rescue operations and previous survival ordeals. One young worker relayed how the old hands spoke of a group of mine workers in Guizhou who had survived 25 days underground. He said he realised now this had been made up to spur the group to keep fighting against a host of deadly perils - the floodwater, the cold, and insufficient oxygen.

The last days of the ordeal also saw a dangerous build-up of toxic gases in the mine and therefore the risk of an explosion. For this reason, the trapped men decided not to tap on the pipes sent down by rescue teams to signal they were still alive. Because no further tapping was heard from underground after Friday 2 April, rescue teams began to fear it was too late.

The trapped workers strapped themselves to beams to prevent the floodwater sweeping them away. They pooled their helmets and rotated the use of the lamps so as to conserve power supplies. "Support and mutual encouragement were the keys to their miraculous survival," commented the South China Morning Post.

Need for workers' control

State media reported how the workers hugged each other to stay warm. The Guangzhou Daily quoted a 23-year old survivor: "All the seniors squeezed me and put me in the centre to prevent me from getting chilly because it was very cold underground." This heroism, selflessness and compassion for their fellow workers stands in stark contrast to the callous money-grabbing ruthlessness of the mines managers who reportedly fled into hiding after the disaster struck on 28 March.

The Wangjialing mine belonged to a joint venture between China National Coal Group and Shanxi Coking Coal Group, two of China's larger state-owned firms. The sequence of events that led to the disaster is an indictment of government policy and shows safety routines in the state-owned sector are not fundamentally better than in the private sector.

As has explained, without workers' democratic control and management of the industry and strong, independent trade unions to supervise workplace safety, even state managers and bureaucrats cut corners and sacrifice safety to profit.

The trapped workers at the Wangjialing mine were migrant construction workers employed by private contractors, they were not state employees. Workers in the much-reduced state-owned sector enjoy greater job protection and better terms than in most private companies, especially in mining. Therefore it is likely the Wangjialing workers do not have permanent job contracts or enjoy basic benefits such as retirement or medical insurance.

In rushing to show its concern, the misnamed ‘communist' regime has sent the survivors to top hospitals in Shanxi such as those in the provincial capital Taiyuan. This VIP treatment, staged for propaganda reasons, is in sharp contrast to the shabby way migrant workers are treated every day. While the provision of good quality medical attention is to be welcomed, why stop there?

The government and - at least on paper - the "Chinese people" own the Wangjialing mine, so why is it not possible to give these workers permanent full-time jobs on a decent wage with medical cover and free schooling for their children? And not just these workers, but all the heroic mine workers who toil under incredible hardship and danger. And why shouldn't these workers be empowered to form their own trade unions, run democratically, and with control over training and workplace safety, including a trade union veto over management decisions if safety issues warrant this?

Based on media reports, the management of the Wangjialing mine are guilty of the following:
• They were rushing to complete the mine project five months ahead of schedule and therefore took big risks that led to the disaster.
• They violated safety regulations by exceeding the maximum allowable numbers sent underground at one time.
• They ignored reports that water was leaking into the mine from nearby disused tunnels - reports they received some days before the disaster.
• The private contractors who were doing the construction work had not provided adequate safety training especially for the inexperienced workers in their employ.

The common root of all these safety lapses is profit, the bosses' quest to make even more money.

While people are inspired and gladdened by the successful rescue of most of the Wangjialing workers, this cannot erase the grief and anger over the deaths from this and other coalmine tragedies, or the fears for the remaining trapped men at the Wangjialing mine. Many people in China are also sickened by the ruling party's blatant attempts to cash in on the ‘miracle' at Wangjialing.

Man-made disaster

Not surprisingly, state media is booming out its praise for the role of the party and government in ‘organising' the successful rescue, although omitting to mention their ‘organisation' of the company that caused the disaster in the first place. The People's Daily attributed the rescue of 115 survivors to "wider coordination by the party and the government".

But the party and the government were not trapped in the dark flooded tunnels below ground. From their hotel suites and limousines top officials were unfortunately unable to ‘direct' and ‘coordinate' the magnificent struggle for survival at Wangjialing. No, rather than the ‘geniuses' of the party officialdom, this ‘miracle' was the work of ordinary workers.

Perhaps the most nauseating spectacle from these events was that of Zhang Baoshun and Wang Jun, respectively party secretary and governor of Shanxi, ordering the convoy of ambulances to be stopped so they could be filmed checking on injured workers. Many of the survivors are in quite serious condition suffering from skin ulcerations from long exposure to water, malnutrition, dehydration and shock.

To insure their message is the only one heard, the authorities in Shanxi have actually sent police to guesthouses to arrest relatives of the survivors to prevent them speaking to the media. The head of the nearby Heijin People's Hospital said he had received orders banning any media interviews with mine workers in the hospital's care. Even a ‘miracle' it seems cannot give Chinese workers freedom of speech!

Among the large number of people who are not taken in by government attempts to hi-jack the Wangjialing rescue effort for its own propaganda ends, one blogger wrote: "The rescue operations are nothing but the result of man-made disaster. If we call them ‘miracles', then such ‘miracles' could continue to occur." shares this sentiment. Serious outstanding issues must be faced in order to prevent new calamities without so favourable an outcome. As long as workers are denied the right to organise democratically, such tragedies are unavoidable. As long as a brutal one-party regime suppresses all democratic rights then dangerous work practises and unscrupulous bosses will go unopposed.

State-owned industries must be brought under the democratic control of the working masses. Some sceptics say ordinary working people are not up to the task of running complex enterprises and organising the economy to meet societies needs. But the inspiring story of Wangjialing shows how ordinary workers and former farmers by organising themselves and pooling their collective abilities can triumph over almost unimaginable odds.

The story of Wangjialing is one of hope and confidence - not in the dictatorial party and money-grabbing officials - but in the will and collective strength of the working class to run society and industry democratically. This gives further arguments for the cause of true socialism!

Roundup: Foreign press lauds China's rescue efforts in coal mine accident

Xinhua News Agency

7 April 2010

BEIJING-- After more than 190 hours of continuous hard work and scientific rescue operation, 115 of the 153 miners trapped in a flooded mine in northern China have been pulled out alive.

The rescue operation not only represented a miracle of life, but also marked an unbelievable achievement in China's history of disaster relief.

In recent days, the story of the Chinese government's all-out efforts to save those trapped miners received extensive and positive coverage in a number of major media organizations in Russia, the United States, Germany, France and other countries.

Russia's state-owned Vesti TV station reported the news immediately after the news of the successful rescue operation broke on Monday, calling it a "miraculous rescue."

It said China's success in pulling out so many miners alive after they were trapped underground for a week was "undoubtedly a miracle."

"Whenever a miner was successfully rescued, all the rescuers on the scene would be excited," the report said.

Khakasia, Russia's independent news agency, said there is no word other than "miracle" to describe the rescue operation. It also noted that almost the entire Chinese nation was watching the latest developments of the rescue efforts and countless people were excited at hearing the good news of so many miners being saved.

Six major U.S. newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the International Herald Tribune published stories Tuesday on China's success in rescuing 115 trapped miners.

The stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune were also accompanied by relevant photos.

A lengthy story in the New York Times said that "from the start, China's latest coal mine disaster seemed likely to end as so many others: a failed rescue effort, grieving relatives, few if any survivors."

But then, more than a week after the accident, rescuers had dragged 115 men up to safety by Monday, it said.

"By any standard in the dangerous world of mining," the newspaper said, "it was a marvel of good fortune."

In its story, the Washington Post quoted David Feickert, a coal mine safety adviser to the Chinese government, as saying that "this is probably one of the most amazing rescues in the history of mining anywhere."

The rescue operation in the Wangjialing coal mine in China's Shanxi province took place at a time when Germans were enjoying their Easter holidays, so most paper media in Germany had stopped printing.

Still, most major German media outlets reported the story on their web sites. Most newspapers published follow-up stories on Tuesday after they resumed printing.

The Spiegel Online published a story on the rescue operation on Monday, entitled "Wonder of Xiangning."

It said during the past few days, more than 3,000 rescuers worked day and night to rescue those trapped miners. To prevent themselves from falling into the mine due to exhaustion, some of them strapped themselves to the wall of the trenches. A rescuer was quoted as saying "the miracle finally happened."

Families of the rescued miners who had lost all hope of being reunited with their husbands, sons or fathers after such a catastrophe, burst into happy tears as they heard the good news, said an article in the German daily Die Welt on Tuesday.

"It is a miracle that so many people can survive. It is worth all our efforts without sleep for several days," an exhausted rescuer was quoted as saying in front of the TV camera.

A doctor was quoted by the newspaper as saying that it is a victory of people's will to live -- a will which was also demonstrated by the survivors of the 8.0-magnitude quake in China's southwest Sichuan Province in 2008.

The leading French newspaper Le Figaro said as the chances of finding any survivors buried underneath were becoming slimmer, human sounds heard through a pipe extended hope.

By Monday, there were still 38 miners waiting to be rescued, the paper said.

Dong-A Ilbo, one of South Korea's major newspapers, said "a miracle occurred in China when most of the 153 miners that were buried in a mine for eight days have been rescued and the remaining may still be alive."

South Korea's YTN television reported on Tuesday that the buried miners managed to survive for more than a week in the dark tunnels drinking only black coal water before being finally rescued.

Describing the rescue as "a miracle," Egypt's Al Jumhuria newspaper said more than 3,000 rescuers and 300 medical workers remain on the scene, trying to save those still trapped underground.

Politically connected owners of W. Virginia mine have long history of violations and ignoring fines

BY Tina Moore, Staff Writer

Daily News

7 April 2010

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship said that a carbon monoxide warning at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine was the first sign of trouble before a huge underground explosion killed 25 miners.

The company that runs the West Virginia coal mine where 25 workers died in a horrific blast has a history of thumbing its nose at federal safety laws.

The Upper Big Branch Mine had 458 safety violations last year, records show. Fifty of the violations, about 10%, were declared wilful or gross negligence - five times the national rate of 2%.

Just last month, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration slapped the owners of Upper Big Branch with 57 more violations - for ventilation failures and improper escape route plans.

The mine is a run by a subsidiary of politically tied Massey Energy, whose deep-pockets CEO, Don Blankenship, has no problem spending money on pro-coal, anti-union polls.

Blankenship keeps as a trophy in his office a TV that was hit by a bullet when he battled a past strike. The Upper Big Branch Mine, where three miners had died in the past year, isn't unionized. In 2004, Blankenship spent $3 million for advertising to help a challenger defeat a sitting state Supreme Court justice. The new judge refused to recuse himself in a $70 million case against Blankenship; the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled he should have.

In the same case, the chief justice of the state court also had to recuse himself after photos surfaced of him on vacation with Blankenship in the French Riviera.

Blankenship insisted in a statement the company's "top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families." Critics say that's just not the case.

Monday night's explosion is thought to have been caused by a pocket of methane. Proper ventilation is key to preventing the buildup of such gases.

The Massey subsidiary that runs Upper Big Branch, Performance Coal Co., has a checkered history of fighting fines - or simply failing to pay them. It was hit with $897,325 in fines last year but has paid only $168,393.

In 2006, a fire at Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine, another Massey mine in West Virginia, trapped 12 workers. Two miners suffocated while searching for a way to escape. Aracoma admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls were removed a year before.

The Aracoma fire led to 25 health and safety violations and criminal charges against company executives. The Mine Safety and Health Administration hit Massey with a $1.5 million fine - the largest ever against a mining company. In 2009, a judge hiked the fine to $2.5 million after executives pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges.

Lawyer Bruce Stanley, who won a settlement for the two widows in the Aracoma case, said the number of violations at Upper Big Branch "causes concern."

Mine accidents like the one at Aracoma and the Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 workers in West Virginia in 2006 have led to scrutiny of the federal monitoring agency. An audit by the U.S. Labor Department's found mine safety officials failed to adequately retrain veteran inspectors.

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