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Vol. 75/No. 47      December 26, 2011

Bosses get off easy in
2010 death of 29 W.Va. miners
Everyone knows mine bosses were entirely to blame for the massive explosion and deaths of 29 miners April 5, 2010, at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va. One year and eight months later, the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued its report, detailing the mine owners’ blatant profit-driven disregard for workers’ lives and flagrant cover-up of evidence.

Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired Massey in June, bought immunity from criminal charges by paying $210 million in civil penalties in an agreement reached with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia and the Department of Justice.

This includes $35 million in MSHA penalties assessed to Massey, $10.8 million of which is for the man-made Upper Big Branch disaster. Some $80 million is to be invested in safety and mining infrastructure for the company and $48 million for a mine health and safety trust fund. The remaining $46.5 million, reportedly for victims’ families, includes $16.5 million already agreed upon to settle lawsuits. The other $30 million is to be set aside for future possible settlements, in effect capping the amount families can claim.

“It was an act of murder,” said Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex was among those killed, in an interview with the Associated Press. “They murdered 29 men, and I’m not satisfied one bit.”

Gene Jones, whose twin brother died in the blast, told AP, “These people don’t care. They’re all wondering who they can pay off. I want to see people go to jail because this was preventable.”

MSHA concluded that the 29 miners died in a massive coal dust explosion that started as a methane ignition as a result of “unlawful policies and practices implemented by PCC [Performance Coal Company] and Massey as the root cause of the explosion.”

This included the intimidation of miners who say or do anything about unsafe conditions; giving mine management advance notice of MSHA inspections so they could conceal safety violations; and maintaining two sets of books, one recording hazards for the company and another omitting them for the safety inspectors.

MSHA said that “a small amount of methane, likely liberated from the mine floor” ignited and mixed with dangerous and excessive amounts of coal dust to create a gigantic coal dust explosion. In the weeks leading up to the explosion, the company did not perform required tests for methane.

In the days following, the Charleston Gazette and West Virginia Public Radio reported that MSHA knew that the Upper Big Branch Mine had a history of methane problems and ignitions and did nothing to enforce safety. Methane explosions occurred at the mine in 1997, 2003 and 2004.

During the investigation Massey CEO Don Blankenship and other company officials refused to testify. Massey announced Blankenship’s retirement in early December 2010. On Jan. 12 Blankenship started a new company, McCoy Coal Group, Inc., although it has yet to seek a mining permit.

There was no union or union safety committee at the mine.

Two surface coal miners were recently killed in early December—Jeff Bishop, 57, at the Oxford Mining #3 in Ohio and Richard Yonts, 49, at Fairbanks Coal Company, Inc. in Virginia. Also in early December stone miner Scott Armstrong, 41, was killed in the Knife River stone mine in Milaca, Minn. These most recent deaths, bringing the total number of miners killed this year to 36, highlight why miners need to exercise control over safety free from company intimidation.
Related articles:
Locked-out tire workers in Ohio build support rally
Rally slams Manitowoc Cranes’ union busting
Striker: ‘If we don’t stop it here, it will spread’
1,700 McGill Univ. strikers win, now ‘together, stronger’
Illinois miners win court ruling in fight for union
Minn. tank trailer workers strike against ‘outsourcing’
Licorice workers in fight ‘for long haul’
Striking limestone workers receive solidarity
Pa. Steelworkers return to jobs with heads held high
Union power key to defend life and limb
‘Keep covering our struggles’  
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