Rescue operations in the days following the blast were halted several times due to dangerous levels of explosive gases. At 12:30 a.m. on April 10 it was announced that the final four missing miners had been found dead, making the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine the worst mine disaster in 40 years.
You have to go back to 1970 in Hyden, Kentucky, when 38 miners were killed, for the last coal mine explosion that took so many lives; another 78 miners died in a 1968 mine explosion in Farmington, West Virginia.
The Charleston Gazette reported April 8 that parts or all of Massey Energys Upper Big Branch 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. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors, who conducted a quarterly inspection of the mine right before the explosion, issued citations for illegal accumulations of coal dust. There were 57 safety violations against the mine operator in March alone.
In January, the Upper Big Branch Mine was issued two citations totaling more that $136,000 by MSHA inspectors for not developing or following a proper ventilation plan. About 38 percent of the violations issued against the company in the past three years were considered significant and substantial by the federal agency. That is MSHAs terminology for a violation that is likely to result in serious injury.
An editorial in the April 7 Charleston Gazette said, All explosions are preventable. But this one wasnt prevented. Safety inspections found the presumed cause, in advanceyet the problem wasnt corrected, and miners died needlessly.
Safety sacrificed for production
The callous disregard for miners safety came as Massey was speeding up production of the highly profitable type of coal extracted from the Upper Big Branch Mine. The mine produces metallurgical coal used to make steel. The high demand for met coal internationally has increased prices to about $200 per ton. In the fourth quarter of 2009, coal production at the mine almost doubled from the previous three months, and the profit-fueled plans of Massey Energy were for further increases.
The companys practice is to challenge most citations, no matter how big or small, as other coal companies routinely do. According to an Associated Press dispatch, MSHA has a backlog of some 82,000 violations and $210 million in contested penalties pending against U.S. coal companies.
Kelly Pritt, 29, from Mammoth, West Virginia, whose father and uncle were coal miners, told the Militant, These fines mean nothing; the companies dont correct the problems. Whats really needed is for all miners, union and nonunion alike, to walk out and not return to work until the conditions are made safe and they can return home unharmed at the end of their shifts.
Massey does not follow the regulations, said Evelyn Morgan from Ashford, West Virginia, widow of a miner who had belonged to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). They get all these violations and they are tied up in court. Morgan joined a vigil here April 12 of several hundred.
Massey volunteered to pay for all of the funerals, she noted, but what is that to [CEO Don] Blankenship? Why not shut down the mines and make them show theyre improving safety and make them correct the violations? They need to be held accountable.
Massey cares more about making money, than about the miners, was how the wife of one construction worker who asked not to be identified explained it to the Militant. Its all about the dollar. She said she grew up with eight of the miners who were killed in the explosion.
Working people have put together their own gatherings throughout the week to express their solidarity. On April 9, 300 miners and their families attended a candlelight vigil in Madison, West Virginia, to offer support to those who had someone in the blast and to get whatever sparse news was available about what happened in the mine. Hundreds more came out April 10 for a vigil behind the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Naoma, organized by the Service Employees International Union District 1199.
About three years ago many miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine voted for the UMWA in two union elections. The first vote was a tie and in the second, the union lost by 14 votes, Phil Smith, a UMWA spokesman, told a BusinessWeek reporter.
Smith said between 1984, when Massey defeated a UMWA strike, and 1988 the company sold or closed 18 of the 23 Massey facilities that had a union.
Today, the UMWA represents workers at only two Massey-owned companies, both of them coal processing plants.
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