Twenty-five miners died in the non-union Upper Big Branch Mine owned by the Massey Energy Company.
When Massey's anti-union chief executive Don L. Blankenship arrived at the mine at 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, escorted by at least a dozen state and other police officers, the crowd of miners and their families screamed at him about caring more about profit than miners' lives. One miner threw a chair, a surviving father and son stormed off screaming they were quiting the mine and others yelled at Blankenship that he was to blame, before he was quickly escorted away.
The Massey Energy Company, the biggest coal mining business in central Appalachia has been subject to sharp scrutiny and fines from regulators over its safety and environmental record. Several of its violations have been for improperly ventilating methane which is suspected to have caused the blast.
Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mine Workers of America, called for a serious investigation of the Massey Energy Company's operations: “Every year, like clockwork, at least one person has been killed since 2000 on the property of Massey or one of its subsidiaries. With those already known to be dead at Upper Big Branch, it’s now up to 45 people in the past 11 years, and four more missing at this point. No other coal operator even comes close to that fatality rate during that time frame. That demands a serious and immediate investigation by MSHA and by Congress.”
While the cause of Monday’s disaster is under investigation, the deadly blast raises serious questions about Massey’s attention to safety under the leadership of Don L. Blankenship, and also why stricter federal laws, put into effect after a mining disaster in 2006, failed to prevent another tragedy.
Representative Nick Rahall II, a Democrat from the district in West Virginia where disaster struck pointed out: “This is the second major disaster at a Massey site in recent years, and something needs to be done.”
The rescue efforts and the state and federal inquiries that are sure to follow will tell more about how and why at least 25 coal miners died. But anger is building against the mine’s owner, the Massey Energy Company's, which has long been accused by its critics of putting profits before the welfare of its workers. The mine owner’s dismal safety record, along with several recent evacuations of the mine, suggest that Monday’s explosion and the carnage that followed were preventable,
The Upper Big Branch mine, according to federal records, was an accident waiting to happen.
It was cited for 458 violations in 2009, double the amount from any previous year, many involving poor ventilation of dust and methane, failure to maintain proper escape routes and the accumulation of combustible materials.
Massey’s chief executive, Don Blankenship, has long invited criticism. He spent an extraordinary $3 million to buy the election of a Supreme Court judge, who then returned the favor by throwing out a major damage award against the company. He is a deregulation zealot who has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party.
Blankenship also authored a controversial internal memo instructing mine superintendents to put coal production ahead of all other considerations.: Blankenship's memo concluded:"“If any of you have been asked...to do anything other than run coal (i.e. – build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.”
In the past two months, miners had been evacuated three times from the Upper Big Branch due to dangerously high methane levels, according to two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.
Representative Rahall II said he had received similar reports from miners about recent evacuations at the mine, which as recently as last month was fined at least three times for ventilation problems, according to federal records.
In 2008, one of Massey's subsidiaries paid what federal prosecutors called the largest settlement in the history of the coal industry after pleading guilty to safety violations that contributed to the deaths of two miners in a fire in one of its mines. That year, Massey also paid a $20 million fine — the largest of its kind levied by the Environmental Protection Agency — for clean water violations.
Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the magnitude of the explosion — the worst mining accident in 25 years — showed that “something went very wrong here.”
“All explosions are preventable,” Mr. Stricklin said. “It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.”
One of those things is a union so that miners can report unsafe, even deadly working conditions without fear of losing their jobs. This isn't a matter a matter of speculation. If you're an underground coal miner, your chances of emerging alive at the end of your shift are better if you work in a union mine than if you don't.
A report from the March 28, 2007, hearing on Protecting the Health and Safety of America's Mine Workers released by the House Committee on Education and Labor contains the following statistics for the five-year period of 2002-2006:
Underground coal injuries: 19,282
In union mines: 5,362 (or 27.8% of total)
Underground coal fatalities: 109
In union mines: 22 (or 20.2%)
In 2007-2009, there were 45 underground coal-mining fatalities. Only six of these were in union mines. Thus, for the 15-year period, less than one-fifth of the fatalities occurred in union mines.