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Vol. 74/No. 23      June 14, 2010

Massey coal mine where 29
died was ‘ticking time bomb’
(front page)
Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine was a “ticking time bomb,” said Stanley Stewart, a miner who has worked there for the past 15 years, at a congressional “field hearing” in Beckley, West Virginia, May 24.

Twenty-nine miners were killed in a massive explosion at the mine in early April, the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years.

Graphic testimony presented by miners and their relatives described the unsafe working conditions and the failure of the government’s inspection agency, the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MHSA), to take steps to shut the mine down.

Stewart, who was 300 feet into the mine at the time of the blast, told a half dozen members of the House Education and Labor Committee about the serious ventilation problems in the mine months prior to the explosion.

The bosses “never fully addressed the air problem,” he said. When inspectors cited violations, “they would fix it just good enough to get us to load coal again, but then it would be back to business as usual.” Last summer, Stewart said, the company eliminated miners’ two-week vacations for not meeting production goals.

Steve Morgan, whose 21-year-old son Adam died in the Upper Big Branch explosion, said his son told him every week of dangerous levels of methane underground. He spoke at the hearing about highly explosive “float coal dust” that at times was so thick he couldn’t see, reported the Charleston Gazette. “Ventilation was so bad he was sent home early several times, including once about a week before the explosion, because they weren’t getting enough air,” Morgan testified.

“MSHA inspections at Massey did little to protect miners,” said Gary Quarles, a miner for 34 years now employed at a nearby Massey mine, whose son Gary Wayne Quarles was killed in the blast. The agency “has let us down many times.” He said that MSHA focuses its inspections on day shift, neglecting nights and weekends.

When MSHA inspectors arrive “code words go out ‘we’ve got a man on the property,’” said Quarles, and “all effort is made to correct any deficiencies or direct the inspector’s attention away from any deficiencies.” Only company people accompany MSHA inspectors when they come to a Massey mine, he noted.

“When I worked at union mines,” Quarles said, “workers at the mine would accompany the MSHA inspectors … pointing out areas of concern. Moreover, as a union miner I was able to refuse work in unsafe conditions without fear of retaliation.”

“When MSHA is not present, there is no thought of doing anything other than producing coal,” Quarles stated. “The miners are not allowed to hang curtains or conduct any other safety operations if they would interfere with or delay the production of coal.”  
Mine in ‘good condition’?
Several days before the House hearing, the Senate Appropriations Committee held a mine safety hearing in Congress. Testifying there was Massey CEO Don Blankenship. He “testified that MSHA inspectors visited the Upper Big Branch mine several days before the explosion, and that they said it had ‘no outstanding major safety issues’ and was in ‘good condition,’” reported the Wall Street Journal.

Joe Main, head of MSHA, testified that the agency received two anonymous complaints about Massey mines in late March, before the explosion took place, about inadequate ventilation systems and high levels of coal dust.

West Virginia senator Robert Byrd said MSHA “has much to explain,” asking why the agency waited until after the Upper Big Branch mine blast before doing “inspection blitzes” of 57 other mines that had a pattern of safety violations.
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