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A Federal Investigation Finds Two Sets Of Books Hid Upper Big Branch Safety Problems Where 29 Miners Were Killed In An April 5th, 2010 Explosion

Published Thursday, June 30, 2011 10:00 am
by Reporter Mike Hall/AFL-CIO News Now Blog

Massey Energy Managers hid serious safety problems at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia - where on April 5th of 2010 an explosion killed 29 miners - from Federal Mine Safety Officials by keeping two individual sets of records, an investigation by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) revealed.

The mine’s production log noted issues such as accumulations of coal dust, ventilation problems, equipment malfunctions and other issues, but no mention of those problems was included in the official set of records Massey was required to provide to MSHA inspectors, said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s head of Coal Mine Safety.

Failure to control highly-explosive coal dust, inadequate ventilation and a long-wall coal-cutting machine’s faulty water sprayers and worn cutting bits all played a role in the massive explosion that roared through the mine, according to MSHA.

In a video message played at a special briefing for the victims’ families, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said MSHA’s investigation shows: “The tragedy at Upper Big Branch was preventable. Mine safety is the responsibility of the operator… those responsible must be accountable.”

Stricklin said a mining company can keep as many sets of books as it wants, but safety issues such as those noted in the production log must be included the official books. 

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward reported that MSHA Officials said they are working with the Department of Justice to examine the books for potential violations of civil and criminal statutes that require accurate recording of hazards.

Shirley Whitt, whose brother Boone Payne was killed at Upper Big Branch, told The Gazette:

“I think that it makes it obvious that they [Massey] were trying to hide something.  Why else would you do that?

United Mine Workers (UMWA) President Cecil Robert said the discovery of two sets of books “demonstrates the utter contempt for Mine Safety and Health Laws that was pervasive throughout the entire management structure at Massey Energy.”

“When mine management records continuing safety issues and hazards at the mine in production and maintenance reports, yet omits the same information from the official safety examination logbook, it confirms that management knew there were serious problems at the mine, yet chose to hide them from safety officials and the miners themselves.  That’s a crime, and punishment for those responsible for this cannot be too severe,” Robert said.

Several families of the miners killed at the non-Union Upper Big Branch Mine have asked the UMWA to represent them in the investigation.

The MSHA’s final report on the disaster is going through technical review, but Stricklin says the investigation shows the most likely cause of the blast was the coal-cutting machine with the worn cutting bits causing a spark that ignited a small amount of methane.  

If the machine’s water supply had been adequate and the sprayers properly functioning, the methane ignition likely would have been avoided or controlled, officials said.

Instead it spread through the section being mined and then encountered excessive amounts of highly-explosive coal dust that fed the blast and it carried throughout the mine, killing miners working in several locations.

Said Stricklin: “Even with this initial methane explosion, no one should have been injured and definitely no one should have died in this explosion.”

Stricklin said the MSHA investigation found that mine management was aware of chronic hazards, but did not correct them and pressured employees conducting pre-shift and other inspections not to record hazards.  Mine management also failed to conduct many examinations required by Federal Mine Safety Laws, the investigation found.

In addition, the investigation found mine guards routinely notified management as soon as MSHA inspectors arrived on the property and managers would relay the information underground to halt production, clean up and correct problems before the inspectors arrived.  Coal production was routinely put ahead of safety and managers were threatened with dismissal for failing to meet production rates, the investigation further found.  It appeared safety was no excuse to stop running coal.  On another front, the investigation found inadequate miner training and in some cases no training at all for miners shifted from one job to another.  Miners feared retribution and firing if they reported safety problems.

The MSHA report mirrors an independent report that was released last month on the disaster that was commissioned by former West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin (Democrat).

In February, Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey Energy for $8.5 billion.

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