MAC: Mines and Communities

Evidence given of duplicity at Massey mine in Congressional Hearing, US

Published by MAC on 2010-05-29
Source: Wall Street Journal, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

New evidence is being aired at the Congressional hearing into the mine disaster at Massey's West Virginia coal mine (see:

The climate of fear being exposed at the mine helps to explain the many safety issues at the mine and adds to pressure on the company (which had only managed to keep the mine open through constant appeals on the health and safety violations it was incurring).

Coal production, not safety, called Massey's main concern

By Dennis B. Roddy and Daniel Malloy

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

25 May 2010

BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Witnesses called Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine a ticking time bomb where workers feared for their lives but rarely spoke up out of fear for their jobs.

Twenty-nine men died when a blast shot through the mine, which had racked up hundreds of outstanding safety violations, but remained open as the company appealed the citations.

In a morning of testimony Monday before the House Committee on Education and Labor, which convened a special panel here, witnesses told of buildups of flammable methane along the mine's longwall cutting area, flagrant disregard of ventilation standards, and coal dust so thick one miner, who later died, complained he had trouble seeing.

One witness told of a miner who requested a transfer to another Massey mine, fearful of deteriorating safety conditions, but was turned down. That miner, Grover Dale Skeens, was among the dead in the April 5 explosion.

"His sister told me he went to management and told them he felt something bad was going to happen there and he requested a transfer and was denied," said Stanley "Goose" Stewart, 53, an Upper Big Branch miner who survived the disaster. He was among family members and miners called to testify at a public hearing into the disaster by the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Witnesses described pervasive safety violations sometimes ordered by Massey supervisors focused on increased production. One witness said his son was told by a foreman to "rethink your career" after complaining of dangerous conditions.

Four years ago investigators found themselves pushing against a wall of secrecy and fear at another Massey mine struck by fatalities connected with safety violations. Monday, angry witnesses named names, including that of Chris Blanchard, head of the Massey subsidiary that ran the Upper Big Branch mine.

As the hearing concluded, Massey issued an unsigned, three-sentence statement insisting the company is committed to safety.

Since the disaster, the company has rarely made spokesmen available and communicated largely through news releases.

Mr. Stewart, who escaped the mine minutes before the massive explosion ripped through the area where he was working, described "an air of fear and intimidation hanging over everyone's heads so they knew to keep their mouths shut."

Mr. Stewart kept written records of his safety concerns, specifically a lack of ventilation on the longwall section of the mine where the blast occurred. He said he didn't share his findings with management for fear of losing his job.

In July of last year, he said, mine crews were ordered to make changes in the ventilation system -- the primary way to guarantee fresh air to workers while sweeping out explosive methane and dust -- while workers were still underground.

"Anything to do with changing ventilation, by law, the mine is to be evacuated because there won't be enough air," Mr. Stewart said. "People working [near the coal face] will have their air short-circuited by the change in ventilation. However, the section crew was still working when the air change was made."

He described low morale inside the mine with workers unwilling to tell management about their fears about safety violations underground.

"We knew that we'd be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us," Mr. Stewart said. "Maybe not that day, or that week, but somewhere down the line, we'd disappear."

Clay Mullins, whose brother, Rex, was among the dead in the April 5 blast, said his brother thought little of Mr. Blanchard, the chief at Upper Big Branch.

"He said he didn't care nothing about safety and all he cared about was production," Mr. Mullins said.

Mr. Blanchard, reached by phone Monday, said, "All I can tell you is safety was always a primary concern."

Still another witness fingered the head of a section where his son, a novice miner, was made to work by himself amid coal dust so thick he could not see. Under law, such miners, called "red hats," are to work alongside an experienced miner.

Steve Morgan, the witness, said his son, Adam, took his advice and approached supervisor Jack Roles about his concerns.

"The boss pulled him aside. He told him if you're going to be that scared of your job, you need to rethink your career," said Mr. Morgan.

Reached by telephone, Mr. Roles said, "I have nothing to say on the subject," and hung up.

Adam Morgan told his father he hoped to have his certificate as an experienced miner in a short time and would move on to another company. Mr. Morgan said his son died in the Upper Big Branch explosion days short of that certification.

Monday's testimony largely eradicated a tradition of silence among families and employees at Massey Energy, where even in the wake of the deaths of two miners at Aracoma Coal in Logan four years earlier, people were reticent to speak, often citing fears of retaliation at work.

Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., pointedly ended the hearing with an announcement that any moves to punish or retaliate against any witnesses would be viewed as an obstruction of Congress and referred for prosecution.

After the hearing, he acknowledged that lining up six family and employee witnesses took considerable effort. Committee staffers said they reached out to three times as many witnesses in efforts to get someone to come forward.

"It's tough," Mr. Miller said. "These are small, closed environments."

One of the dead miners, Dean Jones, was a section foreman, and a family member told investigators that he expressed fears about inadequate ventilation inside Upper Big Branch but was forced to continue working despite clear dangers.

"He also told me that, at least seven times, he was told by Massey supervisors that if he shut down production because of the ventilation problems, he would lose his job," said Alice Peters, Mr. Jones' mother-in-law.

Mr. Jones had one son, Kyle, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. His son's illness made Mr. Jones especially fearful of losing his job.

"He continued to work in that mine even though he knew it was unsafe because he was afraid of being fired and losing his health insurance coverage," Mrs. Peters said.

The father of Gary Wayne Quarles, another of the 29 dead miners, said Massey managers at Upper Big Branch had a code to tip off foremen underground when Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors arrived, effectively thwarting any efforts to catch violations.

"The code words go out that 'we've got a man on the property,' " said Gary Quarles Sr. He said the tip would be radioed from the guard gates to all working operations underground.

"The mine superintendent and foreman communicate regularly by phone, and there are signals that require the foreman who is underground to answer the phone," the elder Mr. Quarles said. "This is one way that the message is conveyed that an inspector is on the property. When the word goes out, all effort is made to correct any violations or direct the inspector's attention away from any violations."

Such tales were nothing new to MSHA head Joe Main, a former United Mine Workers safety officer.

"I've heard of these kinds of things all my life," he said after the hearing. "It's to the point, rising to the level that, in listening to the testimony today, [it] is just thoroughly undercutting the Mine Act."

Mr. Main, who was joined by his boss, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, to observe the hearing, said a crucial component of reform will be to make sure individual miners have the power and the means to raise safety concerns without fear of retribution.

Mr. Main and MSHA have been criticized for conducting its initial witness interviews away from public view -- which the agency says is vital to protect whistleblowers and not interfere with the FBI's criminal investigation.

Two of the dead miners' families filed suit in federal court in Beckley to try to open the interviews up, but a judge ruled in MSHA's favor Monday.

Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, attended the hearing and was particularly interested in the story of trainee miner Adam Morgan.

"You can't overstate how just incredibly tragic that is," Mr. Altmire said after the hearing. "That this was in all likelihood a preventable accident."

Mr. Altmire said he expects the tragedy to spur Congress to tougher reforms, and he is not hearing any pressure against new safety legislation from Western Pennsylvania coal interests. Local companies, he said, have a better safety record than Massey and are in agreement that severe violators must be more aggressively targeted.

"Anyone in the mining industry -- certainly in Western Pennsylvania, and anywhere -- wants a system in place where bad actors are removed from the system and they are penalized and punished," he said.

Massey CEO, Regulators Duel Over Mine Safety

By Kris Maher

Wall Street Journal

21 May 2010

Federal safety officials and Massey Energy Co.'s chief executive exchanged accusations on Capitol Hill about safety oversight at a company mine in West Virginia before an April 5 explosion that killed 29 coal miners.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship, in his first appearance before Congress since the deadliest coal mine accident in 40 years, defended Massey's safety record and attempted to shift scrutiny to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Mr. Blankenship testified that MSHA inspectors visited the Upper Big Branch mine several days before the explosion, and that they said it had "no outstanding major safety issues" and was in "good condition."

Joe Main, the head of MSHA, told the Senate Appropriations Committee that Massey thwarted stiffer enforcement action, such as closing down mines with a history of safety violations, by filing a series of appeals, and he called on Congress to free up funds to help clear up a backlog of challenges filed by companies. He said his agency received two anonymous complaints about Massey mines in late March, weeks before the explosion, and one complaint after the blast, involving illegal ventilation systems and problem levels of coal dust. "The conduct that we found could not be considered anything more than outlawish," Mr. Main said.

The testimony, particularly Mr. Blankenship's, incensed 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.)., who noted that there were 10 safety violations a day at Massey mines. "This is a clear record of blatant disregard for the welfare and safety of Massey miners. Shame!"

As for MSHA, Mr. Byrd told Mr. Main that the agency "still has much to explain." He pressed Mr. Main on why his agency waited until after the accident to launch an inspection blitz of 57 other mines that had a pattern of safety violations.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, with oversight over spending on mine safety agencies, scheduled the hearing to discuss steps that need to be taken to make the nation's mines safer. Such steps include raising funding for MSHA and reducing the backlog of cases before the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission that rules on safety violations contested by operators.

But most of the hearing focused on Massey's safety record and practice of appealing violations prior to the accident at its Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. Mr. Main said Massey escaped tougher enforcement by contesting 78% of the $13.5 million in fines by MSHA in 2009. In the case of the Upper Big Branch mine, he said Massey appeals delayed final rulings on violations there and prevented MSHA from using those rulings to establish a pattern and put the mine on stricter enforcement.

Mr. Blankenship said that Massey was exercising its right to due process, and using a system that Congress put in place. He also defended Massey's safety record in general and specifically at Upper Big Branch, noting that while the mine had a large number of serious violations in 2009, the company made a successful effort to cut violations toward the end of the year.

He also argued that Massey appealed violations at the same rate as other operators, and said fines were ultimately reduced by nearly 40% from what MSHA originally proposed, a "sure sign that our appeals are not frivolous nor are they taken for purposes of delay."

Federal safety officials said Massey and other companies have weakened enforcement through appeals. Last year, operators contested more than 25% of citations, up from 7% in 2006.

There are more than 16,000 cases at the commission, involving 89,000 violations, as of May 5. "That backlog needs to be reduced, and I'm here to say it will be reduced," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa).

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, sat to the left of Mr. Blankenship. Several times, he was asked to comment on Mr. Blankenship's statements. Mr. Roberts called Massey's lost-time accident rate "borderline fraudulent" and said that miners at the Upper Big Branch mine knew of unsafe conditions but were afraid to report them. "We know that people at this mine were worried about being killed and injured," he said.

Mr. Blankenship said Massey has an 800 number where miners can report safety issues anonymously. "We do everything we can to get all 7,000 of our employees to put safety first," he said.

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