25 Coal Miners Died, but Massey CEO Calls Mine "Safe"

| by AFL-CIO

As mine rescue teams wait for more ventilation bore holes to be drilled into Massey Energy Co.’s methane gas-filled Upper Big Branch Mine , the company CEO claims that hundreds of mine safety law violations don’t mean the mine is unsafe. On Monday, 25 miners died in an explosion and four remain unaccounted for in the mine.

Massey CEO Donald Blankenship denies the mine was “improperly operated” and even boasts, “Our creativity on safety is second to none.” Mine safety experts and the families of the dead miners are incredulous—and outraged—over his safety claims. 

In 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed nearly $1 million in fines for more than 450 safety violations at the nonunion mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. Just last month, MSHA cited the mine for 57 safety violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow the ventilation plan. 

Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s administrator for coal mine safety, told the Charleston Gazette that Blankenship’s claims are impossible to believe.

We know it wasn’t operating safely, or we wouldn’t have had an explosion. It’s quite evident that something went very wrong here. All explosions are preventable. It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.

Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and mine safety advocate from Kentucky, told the Gazette: 

Clearly, there were red flags here, and the safety record was not very enviable. And those types of citations really show a culture that is not committed to safety and not committed to protecting the miners who work there.

Between 2008 and 2009, safety violations at Upper Big Branch doubled, while coal production tripled—but the number of hours worked only increased by 22 percent, according to MSHA records. The mine was pushing out a high level of coal or ”running coal.” According to a 2005 memo from Blankenship to Massey 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…you need to ignore them and run coal.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the memo “showcases” Blankenship’s attitude toward miners and safety.

[T]his incident isn’t just a matter of happenstance, but rather the inevitable result of a profit-driven system and reckless corporate conduct.  

The company operates 44 underground and surface mines and controls 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. 

This morning, Davit McAteer, who headed MSHA during the Clinton administration, told CNN’s “American Morning” that 

some companies, and this appears to be one, take the approach that these violations are simply a cost of doing business—it’s cheaper for us to mine in an unsafe way or in a way that risks people’s lives than it is for us to comply with the statutes, comply with the laws. 

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), whose district includes the Upper Big Branch Mine, says the Massey mine appears to be a ”bad apple,”

there’s no question about it, because of the history of violations; including as late as March 30 of this year….Most responsible mine operators want to do a better job. They want to prevent accidents. They do not want to cut corners. They do not want to shortchange a miner’s life in exchange for the bottom-line profit.

Last night, United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard told television host Ed Schultz:

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. 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 New York Times reports when Blankenship attempted to address a crowd of miners’ relatives yesterday at the mine’s site, he was

[e]scorted 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…several people yelled at Mr. Blankenship that he was to blame before he was escorted from the scene. 

For an in-depth look at Blankenship, take a look at Michael Whitney’s recent post on Firedoglake.