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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 74/No. 15      April 19, 2010

(lead article)
At least 25 miners die
in W. Virginia blast
Company has long record of violations
AP Photo/Jeff Genter
Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine April 7 during drilling operations to release gas from mine. Two days after explosion four miners were still missing.

April 7—Massey Energy company’s disregard for miners’ lives, and government refusal to enforce safety laws, are in the spotlight following the April 5 explosion that killed at least 25 coal miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine, in Montcoal, West Virginia. It is the worst U.S. mine disaster in a quarter century.

Federal mine safety officials said the blast at Massey subsidiary Performance Coal, located about 30 miles south of Charleston, was most likely caused by high methane levels. Two miners, who asked to remain anonymous, told the New York Times that workers at the mine were evacuated three times in the last 60 days because of dangerous methane levels. This past March inspectors imposed three fines on the mine for ventilation violations. Since 2005 the company has been fined 86 times for improper mine ventilation.

The deadly explosion climaxed more than a year of mounting safety violations as Massey sped up coal production. Inspectors cited 515 violations of regulations in 2009, more than twice the 197 recorded the previous year. Fines tripled. “Coal production also tripled over that period, but hours worked by miners increased by only about 22 percent,” the Charleston Gazette reported.

Interviewed after the explosion, Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey, told ABC News, “Anything you do in life has risks.” He insisted to the Wall Street Journal that Upper Big Branch was not an unsafe mine. “The safety record in the past three months has been really, really good.”

Andrew Tyler, a 22-year-old electrician who worked as a contractor at the mine two years ago, disputed that claim. “No one will say this who works at that mine, but everyone knows it has been dangerous for years,” he told the Times. “I’m willing to go on record because I am a subcontractor who doesn’t depend on Massey for my life.”

Live wires were routinely left exposed in the mine, he said, and coal dust accumulations not cleaned up. Workers often had to put in 12-hour shifts.

Massey’s Web site says it is the fourth largest coal company in the country, based on produced coal revenue. It achieved this standing through decades of union busting against the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union. In 1984 the company refused to sign a contract with the union. A bitter strike ensued in which the union was defeated. One strike leader, Donnie Thornsbury, is still in prison today. He was convicted in 1987 on frame-up charges of killing a scab coal hauler.  
‘Survival of the most productive’
With its defeat of the UMWA, Massey began taking over other mines in West Virginia, and eventually became the biggest coal company in Central Appalachia. It is notorious for ruthlessly suppressing union activity and boosting profits by ignoring safety and environmental standards. Blankenship summed up his philosophy in 1984 this way: “Unions, communities, people—everybody’s going to have to learn to accept that, in the United States, you have a capitalist society. And that capitalism, from a business viewpoint, is survival of the most productive.”

The anger that has built up over the years against the coal giant burst out when Blankenship appeared at 2:00 a.m. on April 6 to report the death toll to the miners’ families. “Escorted by at least a dozen state and other police officers, according to several witnesses, Mr. Blankenship prepared to address the crowd, but people yelled at him for caring more about profits than miners’ lives,” reported the Times. He left in a hurry.

Michelle McKinney’s father, Benny Willingham, died in the explosion, five weeks before his scheduled retirement. She was angered that Massey never contacted the family to report his death. McKinney found out from a local official at a school nearby. “These guys, they took a chance every day to work and make [Massey] big. And they couldn’t even call us,” she told the Associated Press.

U.S. president Barack Obama issued a statement April 6 saying that “the federal government stands ready to offer whatever assistance is needed in this rescue effort.” But it is the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that has turned a blind eye to Massey’s flouting of safety regulations for years.

MSHA records show three miners have died at the Upper Big Branch mine in the last 12 years, one from electrocution, one from a roof fall, and another when a rock fell on him. In every year but one since 2002, the mine has had a higher than national average accident rate. The company routinely ignored fines. Massey “was fighting many of the steepest fines or simply refusing to pay them,” ABC News reports.

In 2008 Massey pled guilty to 10 criminal counts stemming from a January 2006 fire in its Aracoma mine in West Virginia that killed workers Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield. The company admitted it did not provide the required escape tunnels, removed some permanent ventilation controls without replacing them, and faked safety records. It paid $4.2 million in fines, the biggest financial settlement in coal industry history, according to ABC.
Related articles:
Washington State: 5 workers killed in refinery explosion
No miner has to die

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