Friday, April 09, 2010


Coal mining has acquired a well deserved reputation as perhaps the most dangerous peace time way to earn a living. It seems, however, that the Massey Mine in Montcoal West Virginia has a particularly egregious record when in comes to safety violations. See the amazing story following below from the AFL-CIO Blog. The mine's owner, Massey Energy Company is apparently one amazing piece of work in terms of not just safety but also in terms of the environment, labour relations and general right wing politics. See the wikipedia article on Massey. Here's the story.
Massey Mine Cited for 450+ Safety Violations Before Deadly Blast
by Mike Hall, Apr 6, 2010

The Massey Energy Co. mine, where 25 coal miners were killed and four remain unaccounted following an explosion yesterday, was assessed nearly $1 million in fines for safety violations last year, including violations concerning escape routes and ventilation, according to federal records and news reports.

The mine is owned by Massey and operated by its subsidiary, Performance Coal Co.

Early indications indicate the blast was caused by highly explosive methane gas leaking from sealed-off areas of the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.—the same cause of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster that killed 12 miners. New federal mine safety rules enacted after the Sago disaster included tougher new requirements for sealing off worked-out areas.

CNN reports that in 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed nearly $1 million in fines for more than 450 safety violations at the nonunion Upper Big Branch Mine, including penalties for

more than 50 “unwarrantable failure” violations, which are among the most serious findings an inspector can issue. Among those were citations for escape routes for miners and air quality ventilation.

According to ABC News, Massey was fighting the MSHA fines, including those for

57 infractions just last month for violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow the ventilation plan. The federal records catalog the problems at the Upper Big Branch Mine….They show the company was fighting many of the steepest fines, or simply refusing to pay them.

MSHA records also show that in at least six of the past 10 years, the Massey mine’s injury rate has been worse than the national average for similar operations.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a former Mine Workers (UMWA) president and third generation coal miner, says, “The thoughts and prayers of America’s workers are with the families” of those killed and for the safety of the “courageous” rescue teams. He adds:

However, this incident isn’t just a matter of happenstance, but rather the inevitable result of a profit-driven system and reckless corporate conduct. Many mining companies have given too little attention to safety over the years and too much to the bottom line.

In 2006, a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine, also in West Virginia, killed two miners. Ultimately, Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 criminal mine safety violations and paid $2.5 million in fines related to that fatal fire. According to ABC, the two miners “suffocated as they looked for a way to escape.”

Aracoma later admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls had been removed in 2005 and not replaced, according to published reports. The two widows of the miners killed in Aracoma were unsatisfied by the plea agreement, telling the judge they believed the company cared more about profits then safety.

Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and mine safety advocate from Kentucky, told The New York Times, “Massey’s commitment to safety has long been questioned in the coalfields.” The Times notes a 2006 internal memo from Massey CEO Donald Blankenship.

In the memo, Mr. Blankenship instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.

“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” he wrote.

Last night, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), whose district includes the Upper Big Branch Mine, told reporters:

This is the second major disaster at a Massey site in recent years, and something needs to be done.

Meanwhile, the Charleston Gazette reports safety officials are looking at methane that built up inside a sealed-off area or leaked through the seals as the cause of the blast. In 2006, methane from sealed-off areas caused the explosions at a Sago, W.Va., mine that killed 12 miners and also at the Darby Mine in Kentucky where two coal miners were killed.

The new mine safety rules passed after the Sago and Darby disasters called for increased monitoring of air quality in active and sealed sections of the mines to avoid methane build up. The new regulations also required mine operators to install stronger barriers between active and nonactive sections of mines.

But, as Oppegard told the Gazette, “Seals can be deadly if they are not maintained and monitored properly.”

In a statement today on the explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, Rahall says:

We will scrutinize the health and safety violations at this mine to see whether the law was circumvented and miner’s precious lives were willfully put at risk, and there will be accountability.
If you want to help the community or keep informed of developments (such as the continued search for four miners still missing) here is an instructive article from the Take Part site.
West Virginia Mine Disaster:
How to Help Families and Victims

At least 25 miners died Monday in an explosion deep inside a West Virginia coal mine—the accident is being called the nation's worst mining disaster in a quarter century. Rescuers are continuing to search for four additional miners who may still be trapped underground, and federal officials have launched an investigation into the explosion at the Upper Big Branch South Mine in Whitesville, W. Va. Two miners remain hospitalized.

Various relief organizations are on the ground in West Virginia to support the victims' families and rescue workers. Here's how you can get involved with the rescue and recovery effort:

American Red Cross volunteers are providing food, comfort and emotional support to the victims' families and rescue workers. Click here to make a donation to the Red Cross's general disaster relief fund. The organization is not accepting gifts specifically for the West Virginia miners' families at this time. (NB- Molly )
•The Salvation Army has already provided food and water to victims' families and rescue workers. You can click here to make an area-specific donation to the organization.
•The West Virginia Council of Churches has set up the Montcoal Mining Disaster Fund. Click here to support the Council's efforts.
For updates about the mine disaster and latest news, several news organizations, agencies, and non-governmental organizations are on the ground in Whitesville:

•The Charleston Gazette's "Coal Tattoo" blog is one of the most comprehensive sources of news on the coal mining industry. Its lead reporter, Ken Ward, Jr, is a nationally-recognized expert on the issue.
•Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia has been providing regular updates to the media. His office has also ordered flags at half-mast throughout the state in honor of the victims.
Massey Energy Co., the owner of the coal mine, has also been regularly providing briefings to the media and updates about their efforts to support the victims' families.
Meanwhile it seems that the Obama Administration has known for some time about the fiddles of mining companies such as Massey Energy and, true to bureaucratic form, has done essentially nothing. Here's a story from the Huffington Post about the delay and thumb twiddling amongst officialdom.
Obama Administration Missed Chance To Get Tougher On Unsafe Mines

Long before the explosion that killed at least 25 coal miners inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine on Monday, Obama administration mine safety officials were aware of a major loophole that allowed companies like Massey to avoid stricter enforcement despite alarming safety records.

Mining safety regulations were tightened in 2007, following an explosion the previous year that killed 12 miners at the Sago Mine, also in West Virginia. But mining companies immediately began gaming the new system.

Mines that are designated as having a "pattern of violations" are subject to a greater level of oversight. But Massey and others ducked that designation simply by lodging formal appeals against the major violations issued against them.

It turns out that, according to current rules, contested violations can't be taken into consideration when assessing whether a pattern of violations exists.

Contesting those violations also allowed Massey and other companies to delay paying the fines levied against them -- thwarting a key enforcement mechanism.

And all the appeals overwhelmed the commission charged with adjudicating them, creating a massive backlog that effectively allowed the companies to flaunt the rules indefinitely.

Joe Main, a former United Mine Worker of America official, took over the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA, pronounced em-sha) in October. He told a congressional hearing in February that the backlog has effectively prevented MSHA from applying the stepped-up enforcement mechanisms to mines with a pattern of serious violations.

"And I think the consequence there is that mines have the ability to continue that pattern unabated," he said. His conclusion: "[W]e must diminish the incentives for operators who appear to be developing a pattern of significant and substantial safety violations to contest, simply to delay enforcement."

But that was in February -- at a hearing called by a concerned chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

And according to Celeste Monforton, a George Washington University public health professor and former MSHA official, Obama administration officials had known of the problem for more than a year by then.

"I feel very confident that when the presidential transition teams in December and January were meeting with the senior career people in the agency," she said, "they heard that, one, there's a huge backlog in the review commission and, two, this is neutering, or making impotent, the pattern of violations provision of the Mine Act."

So, Monforton told HuffPost, "The question is: 'What did you do, knowing on January 21st that they're gaming the system? What did you do?'

"It doesn't look like they did anything."

Actually, the Obama administration did add four administrative law judges to the panel of 10 charged with ruling on the contested violations, in an attempt to somewhat reduce the backlog. And they've now requested four more.

But the basic rule that the companies are exploiting remained unchanged.

Officials from MSHA and its parent agency, the Department of Labor, could not be reached for comment by HuffPost on Friday, but MSHA deputy Greg Wagner spoke at some length on Thursday to Ken Ward Jr., the award-winning mine reporter and blogger for the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette.

Wagner told Ward that MSHA reviewed the Upper Big Branch Mine for a potential pattern of violations as recently as October, but concluded it did not meet the criteria, despite an astonishingly high number of serious safety violations.

Wagner, Ward wrote "was not able to explain that decision."

"I don't know the answer to that, but I will get that to you as soon as I can," Wagner told Ward.

There's more:

Wagner said that the new leaders at MSHA under the Obama administration hope to rewrite the pattern-of-violations rules, which date back to 1990. But he conceded that MSHA did not include such a proposal on regulatory agendas issued in May or in December...

In describing MSHA's policing of the Upper Big Branch Mine, Wagner said, "I think we feel that we used the tools that we have available."

But Wagner said he did not know if MSHA ever sought increased fines from the Upper Big Branch Mine for "flagrant violations," as allowed under the 2006 MINER Act.

And he said MSHA did not use its long-standing legal authority to seek a federal court order against any condition at the mine that created "a continuing hazard to the health or safety of miners."

"We did not use that section of the act, no," Wagner said. "I'm really trying to get an opinion from our lawyers to explain to me really what constraints they felt really existed to keep us from going .... I don't think that's ever been used, and I think there's some reason that people haven't and I need to find that out."

The Upper Big Branch mine's abysmal safety record, and its passage through the mining bureaucracy has, by now, been extensively chronicled.

Ward wrote that parts or all of the mine "were ordered closed more than 60 times in 2009 and 2010, and the mine was repeatedly cited in recent months for allowing potentially explosive coal dust to accumulate, according to newly released government documents."

The New York Times reported Friday that the mine was warned in December 2007 that it had been issued 204 serious violations over the previous two years, a rate nearly twice the national average, and would soon be designated as having a pattern of violations. But in the ensuing three months, the mine was able to reduce its rate to just above the national average -- enough to avoid the designation.

MSHA in March 2008 praised Massey and six other violators for "successfully and dramatically" reducing their "significant and substantial (S&S) violation rates -- on average -- by 50 percent during the 90-day review period."

But according to the Washington Post, Massey's mine "met the legal criteria" to avoid the designation "in part because contested violations had not been resolved. Massey is still contesting 352 alleged violations at the Upper Big Branch mine, some dating to 2007."

USA Today reported on Friday that coal mine operators generally have used appeals to avoid paying all but $8 million of the $113 million in major penalties assessed against them since April 2007.

Upper Big Branch in particular "has paid just one major fine since 2007, which cost $10,750. It has appealed or is delinquent on 21 major fines worth $505,000, records show."

The Associated Press reported that the mine "was cited for violating two federal safety rules on the day of the blast."

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement released on Thursday that 20 people had been killed at mines operated by Massey, its subsidiaries or subcontractors in the last decade -- prior to Monday's explosion.

"Every year, like clockwork, at least one person has been killed since 2000 on the property of Massey or one of its subsidiaries," Roberts said. "With those already known to be dead at Upper Big Branch, it's now up to 45 people in the past 11 years, and four more missing at this point. No other coal operator even comes close to that fatality rate during that time frame. This demands a serious and immediate investigation by MSHA and by Congress."

West Virginia's senior senator, Democrat Robert Byrd, released a statement on Friday:

Once we learn the cause of this disaster and investigations are completed whether it is wrongdoing by Massey, lack of enforcement by MSHA, or inadequacies with the mine health and safety laws, including the MINER Act of 2006, action will need to be taken...

[T]he more I learn about the extent of these violations by Massey at the Upper Big Branch Mine alone, the angrier I get. 57 citations in the month of March alone! Closed over 60 times during the past two years to correct problems!

To me, one thing is clear -- for a company that has had this number of violations at just one coal mine -- one must seriously begin to question the practices and procedures of this particular coal company and it needs the most serious scrutiny from the Congress and the federal regulators.

Meanwhile, Republican West Virginia Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito made it clear in her statement that the Obama administration's conduct should also be in question:

In 2009, MSHA cited 515 violations and ordered the mine closed 29 times. Upper Big Branch Mine has had 124 violations in 2010 already. In fact, MSHA faulted the Upper Big Branch Mine on the day of the explosion for inadequate maps of escape routes and an improper splice of electrical cable on a piece of equipment. It falls on both the mining company and the regulatory agency to make sure that a mine is safe and in this instance both failed.

I ask that as we move forward, we take a long hard look at the relationship of mine operators and MSHA and how we could have prevented this disaster.

At the congressional hearing in February, Rep. George Miller angrily declared that "delays from growing appeals are undermining MSHA's ability to impose tougher sanctions on the repeat violators... If cases are stuck for months or years in the review commission, MSHA cannot impose stronger penalties on the worst mine operators. As a result, miners' lives are in the cross hairs."

But the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, defended the companies, arguing that "it appears mine operators are simply adapting to a punitive new regulatory environment that favors litigation and conflict over collaboration."

He expressed his view that "legislation and regulation may actually be the cause rather than the solution to the problem."

Matt Madia, who focuses on federal regulatory policy at the good-government group OMB Watch, sees MSHA's limitations as the result of a systemic problem.

"What's happening is you've got a relatively small agency with too few dollars, with too few inspectors, responsible for policing a huge industry with a huge lobbying presence in Washington. So who do you think's going to win that battle?

"It's easy to blame the bureaucrats after the fact, but the public and Congress and the administration are often not paying attention to these issues before tragedy strikes," he said.

Do you know more about the circumstances that could have prevented this disaster? How about factors that may have contributed - or could lead to - such mining tragedies elsewhere? Are you aware of situations in which people have been harmed, or where unsafe conditions persist, despite reforms and regulation that should have made those situations safer?
Government regulation is, of course, a highly indirect way to address such problems as work safety, and the mining industry is hardly the only field where such regulation has delivered far less than it promised. A more direct way to ensure safe working conditions is organization on the job. Here's a final story from the Digital Journal about the efforts that Massey Energy has put into preventing their workers from exercising their democratic right to unionize...and what this means in terms of workplace safety.
Union-busting associated with Massey's coal mine disaster
By Carol Forsloff.
Brian Stansberry

Massey forced the unions out, and now non-union coal miners have died in a coal mine cited for 600 violations in the past 18 months, so does the lack of a union contribute to safety concerns?

Some people believe lack of unions is the problem of coal mine safety with respect to Massey and the recent tragedy of 25 miners who died in a West Virginia coal mine and 4 now stranded, left possibly to die because rescuers can't get near them.

A letter to the editor in the Dallas Morning News poses that very important issue that the writer declares people should consider each time they flip a switch and turn on the electric lights.

What's the skinny on Massey and the unions? Is that an important variable in the mine disaster? Is unionism designed to protect the workers in instances like this, and what happens when unions aren't involved?

In 2009 the National Labor Relations Board agreed with a decision that Massey Energy rehire 85 coal miners who said they had been discriminated against because they were union members. Union members have declared Don Blankenship, the manager of the corporation, to have an antipathy for unions.

Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey, is a Republican and has given large sums of money to various Republican candidates in West Virginia. CBS examined his tweets and found him against environmentalists and making fun of global warming and climate change as well. He has a record for making big donations to Republican candidates with the company giving 91% of its political contributions to Republicans since 1990.

According to the history of coal mining in Appalachia, for many years coal miners worked in hazardous conditions, made little money, had safety concerns, and were afraid to speak about their problems. When unions first attempted to enter the coal mining industry, there was widespread violence, resulting in the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars. When the union gathered thousands of members together in an organized community, that looked to government officials like an army, they were met by state and Federal troops. They were accused of being socialists. Many lives were lost, history declares, but no accurate count ever made. The union members were accused of treason, and the company officials allowed to continue business in the same ways they had historically done.

Coal miner supporters and union officials have accused Massey Energy of being one of the big bosses in the tradition of the coal mine owners of yore. They believe that safety measures, that the union would have insisted upon, would have been instituted had the union been involved.

History tells a lot about unionism, power, and disasters in West Virginia. There are those who wonder if it has been repeated with the one in the coal mine owned by Massey now.

As it is, they say, the result of having unsafe conditions, caused the recent tragedy. President Leo Gerard of the Steelworkers Union had this to say.

“I can absolutely say that if these miners were members of a union, they would have been able to refuse unsafe work… and would not have been subjected to that kind of atrocious conditions,” said Gerard. “In some places like in Australia and Canada, this kind of negligence would result in criminal negligence [charges] being brought against the management and the CEO.”

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) offered the following statement on April 5, following the disaster:

“The hearts and prayers of all UMWA members are with the families of those lost today at Performance Coal Company’s Upper Big Branch mine. We are also praying for the safe rescue of those still missing, and for the safety of the courageous mine rescue team members. They are putting their lives on the line, entering a highly dangerous mine to bring any survivors to safety.

“As a mine operated by a subsidiary of Massey Energy, the Upper Big Branch mine is a nonunion mine. Nevertheless, I have dispatched highly trained and skilled UMWA personnel to the immediate vicinity of the mine, and they stand ready to offer any assistance they can to the families and the rescuers at this terrible and anxious time. We are all brothers and sisters in the coalfields at times like this."

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