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Today Marks The First Anniversary Of The Deadly Upper Big Branch Explosion That Claimed The Lives of 29 Coal Miners In West Virginia

Published Tuesday, April 5, 2011 4:00 pm
by Mike Hall/National AFL-CIO News Now Blog

(WHITESVILLE, WEST VIRGINIA) - One year ago today, 29 Coal Miners were killed in an explosion at a West Virginia mine that had a long and troubling record of safety violations.  This evening in Whitesville, family members, mine rescue personnel and first responders, along with Acting Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, U.S. Labor Secretary Labor Hilda Solis, Democratic U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, Senator Joe Manchin (Democrat) and U.S. Representative Nick Rahall (Democrat) will gather for a private ceremony to commemorate the miners who were killed in the blast.  While the service is closed to the public to the public it will be streamed live at www.facesofthemine.com at 6 p.m. (EDT).

A year after the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine disaster, there still is no definitive answer as to exactly what happened nor exactly who was responsible for the deadly blast that Federal Mine Safety Officials say was “preventable.”

But United Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts says “there are things we do know” about the non-Union mine.  “We do know that the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, operated the Upper Big Branch and other mines with an attitude bordering on contempt for Mine Safety and Health Laws and Regulations.  We do know that the mine’s head of security has been indicted for lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence,” Roberts said.

In the wake of the disaster, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) launched a series of surprise, hard-nosed “impact” inspections aimed at mines with a history like Upper Big Branch’s of Safety and Health Violations and other issues. Those inspections, says Roberts, show that several other companies continue to operate their mines on the edge of disaster, as repeated surprise inspections by Federal and State Agencies demonstrate.

The Upper Big Branch disaster spotlighted why stronger safety standards and tougher penalties – both criminal and civil - are needed and how companies can game the system with multiple appeals of violations delaying sanctions and allowing unsafe conditions to continue.

Legislation to strengthen mine safety laws was approved by the House Education and Labor Committee last summer.  But in December, Republicans blocked the bill that would have given MSHA powerful new tools to keep miners safe and hold mine operators accountable for putting their workers in dangers.

“When the people’s representatives are more concerned about fattening corporate profit margins than they are about keeping workers alive, they have crossed a dangerous line and we must hold them accountable,” Roberts said.

Last week MSHA chief Joe Main told a Senate Committee: “No mine operator should be risking the lives of its miners by cutting corners on Health and Safety.  For those operators who do knowingly engage in such practices, we need to send a message that their actions will not be tolerated.”  Main also said a full report on the blast is several months away, but MSHA will hold a public briefing in June.

While the Upper Big Branch explosion highlighted the need for strong Mine Safety Laws, it also brought strong scrutiny of  long-time Massey CEO Donald Blankenship, who as the National AFL-CIO News Now Blog reported in July has made a career of busting Unionsviolating Mine Safety Laws, attacking environmentalists and shilling for the far right and corporate America.

Blankenship took over leadership of Massey in 2000 and under his leadership, Massey became one of the most dangerous coal companies in the Nation – with 55 miners killed in Massey mines during the decade Blankenship was in charge.

In July, Blankenship, who long derided the need for tough Federal Mine Safety Laws, claimed the Upper Big Branch blast was “an unavoidable act of God,” and not the result of lax safety.

Yet in 2009 alone, Federal Mine Inspectors issued 515 safety violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine, including around 50 for what are called “unwarrantable failures” - in other words, safety hazards the company knew about, but didn’t fix.

In December in what industry observers said was a more to turn down the heat on the company from Federal Regulators and make Massey more attractive to possible suitors.  Blankenship resigned.  In February, Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey for $8.5 billion.

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