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US: Deaths at West Virginia Mine Raise Issues About Safety

by Ian Urbina and Michael CooperNew York Times
April 6th, 2010

Chris Keane/Reuters

On Tuesday, a West Virginia state police officer stood at the entrance of the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal where 25 miners had died the day before.

Rescue workers began the precarious task Tuesday of removing explosive methane gas from the coal mine where at least 25 miners died the day before. The mine owner’s dismal safety record, along with several recent evacuations of the mine, left federal officials and miners suggesting that Monday’s explosion might have been preventable.

In the past two months, miners had been evacuated three times from the Upper Big Branch because of dangerously high methane levels, according to two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat whose district includes the mine, said he had received similar reports from miners about recent evacuations at the mine, which as recently as last month was fined at least three times for ventilation problems, according to federal records.

The Massey Energy Company, the biggest coal mining business in central Appalachia and the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, has drawn sharp scrutiny and fines from regulators over its safety and environmental record.

In 2008, one of its subsidiaries paid what federal prosecutors called the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry after pleading guilty to safety violations that contributed to the deaths of two miners in a fire in one of its mines. That year, Massey also paid a $20 million fine — the largest of its kind levied by the Environmental Protection Agency — for clean water violations.

It is still unclear what caused Monday’s blast, which is under investigation. But the disaster has raised new questions about Massey’s attention to safety under the leadership of its pugnacious chief executive, Don L. Blankenship, and about why stricter federal laws, put into effect after a mining disaster in 2006, failed to prevent another tragedy.

Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the magnitude of the explosion — the worst mining accident in 25 years, which also left four people missing, including a woman working as a mining operator — showed that “something went very wrong here.”

“All explosions are preventable,” Mr. Stricklin said. “It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.”

Mr. Rahall said that even veteran rescue workers, some with decades of experience, had told him they were shocked by what they saw inside the mine. They said they had never witnessed destruction on that scale, Mr. Rahall said, or dealt with the aftermath of an explosion of that magnitude.

“It turned rail lines into pretzels,” Mr. Rahall said. “There seems like there was something awfully wrong to make such a huge explosion.”

Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and members of Congress said state and federal officials would begin investigating the explosion.

In an interview with the Metronews radio network in West Virginia, Mr. Blankenship said that despite the company’s many violations, the Mine Safety and Health Administration would never have allowed the mine to operate if it had been unsafe.

“Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process,” Mr. Blankenship said.

“There are violations at every coal mine in America, and U.B.B. was a mine that had violations,” he added, referring to Upper Big Branch.

“I think the fact that M.S.H.A., the state and our fire bosses and the best engineers that you can find were all in and around this mine, and all believed it to be safe in the circumstances it was in, speaks for itself as far as any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated,” Mr. Blankenship said.

The Massey Energy Web site also contains a defense of the company’s safety record. It says 2009 was the 17th year out of 20 that the company had scored above the industry average in safety.

But miners and other workers in the mine took issue with Mr. Blankenship’s reassurances.

“No one will say this who works at that mine, but everyone knows that it has been dangerous for years,” said Andrew Tyler, 22, an electrician who worked on the wiring for the coal conveyer belt as a subcontractor at the mine two years ago.

Mr. Tyler said workers had regularly been told to work 12-hour shifts when eight hours is the industry standard. He also said that live wires had been left exposed and that an accumulation of coal dust and methane was routinely ignored.

“I’m willing to go on record because I am a subcontractor who doesn’t depend on Massey for my life,” Mr. Tyler said.

In March alone, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the Upper Big Branch mine for 53 safety violations.

Last year, the number of citations issued against the mine more than doubled, to over 500, from 2008, and the penalties proposed against the mine more than tripled, to $897,325.

J. Davitt McAteer, a former assistant director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the Massey company “is certainly one of the worst in the industry” when it came to safety and called recent violations at the mine for substandard ventilation and other problems “cardinal sins.”

“The Massey record is without doubt one of the most difficult in the industry from a safety standpoint,” Mr. McAteer, now the vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University, said in an interview. He said other large, diversified coal operators had far better safety records than Massey.

In 2008, the Aracoma Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey, agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties and to plead guilty to several safety violations related to a 2006 fire that killed two miners at a coal mine in Logan, W.Va.

After the fire broke out, the two miners found themselves unable to escape, partly because the company had removed some ventilation controls inside the mine. The workers died of suffocation. Federal prosecutors at the time called it the largest such settlement in the history of the coal industry.

The company’s commitment to safety came under scrutiny in 2005 after Mr. Blankenship sent a memorandum to his deep mine superintendents.

“If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal,” said the memo, a copy of which was obtained from Bruce E. Stanley, a lawyer who represented the widows of the victims of the Aracoma mine fire. “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.”

In a follow-up memo a week later, Mr. Blankenship said some superintendents might have interpreted his first memo as implying that safety was a secondary consideration; in the second memo he called safety the company’s “first responsibility.”

In Washington on Tuesday during an Easter prayer breakfast, President Obama offered his condolences to the families of the victims and said the federal government was ready to help in whatever way needed.

Thirty-one miners were in the mine around 3 p.m. Monday when the explosion occurred. Some died from the explosion. Others suffocated from the fumes, state safety officials said. Seven of the bodies have been removed, and 14 have not yet been identified.

Four of the miners who were believed to have been farther back in the mine remained unaccounted for late Tuesday. Officials said there was still a possibility, though slim, that they had been able to reach airtight chambers, where there are stockpiles of food, water and oxygen.

Governor Manchin said at an afternoon news conference on Tuesday that four drills were in place to begin drilling holes behind the rescue chambers, an effort that began in earnest later in the day. It may not be until Wednesday night that rescue workers can regain entry to the mine after the first ventilation hole is drilled, he said.

“Everyone is going to cling on to the hope of that miracle,” the governor said of the four missing miners. “The odds are against us. These are long odds. They know. These are mining families. They know methane, they know about air.”

As the families of the miners waited on Tuesday, frustrations grew. State and mine officials were taking a long time to confirm the names of the dead, many of the miners said. Families also voiced frustration that they had learned about the disaster from news reports rather than from Massey officials.

Some of these tensions boiled over around 2 a.m. Tuesday when Mr. Blankenship arrived at the mine to announce the death toll to families who were gathered at the site. Escorted by at least a dozen state and other police officers, according to several witnesses, Mr. Blankenship prepared to address the crowd, but people yelled at him for caring more about profits than miners’ lives.

After another Massey official informed the crowd of the new death toll, one miner threw a chair. A father and son stormed off screaming that they were quitting mining work. And several people yelled at Mr. Blankenship that he was to blame before he was escorted from the scene.





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