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Massey Energy Disregarded Mine Safety, Faked Records, Could Have Prevented Death of 29 Miners

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June 29, 2011

A government investigation has found that Massey Energy Company had a history of disregarding safety practices at its West Virginia mine, including failure to fix broken safety equipment and the falsification of safety logs, resulting in the death of 29 miners in an explosion.

More than a year after the massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch South Mine on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners and injured two more, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) continues to investigate the cause of the explosion and the actions of Massey Energy leading up to the tragic event. The agency has obtained more than 84,000 documents, 954 maps, taken nearly twenty-four thousand photos and collected over a thousand pieces of physical evidence.

MSHA’s final report is not due out until later this year, but at a public briefing of the ongoing investigation, federal investigators revealed the cause of the explosion that day. That sparks from equipment called a longwall (LW) shearer ignited a small amount of methane that then transitioned into a massive coal dust explosion. The agency concluded that Massey Energy could and should have prevented the explosion by following safety protocols, including proper maintenance of water sprayers on the shearer for dust suppression.

A report released last month by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) came to the same conclusions about Massey Energy’s actions before the explosion and that the death of the miners was preventable.

“Maintaining a safe mine is the responsibility of the mine operator,” said MSHA Assistant Secretary Joseph A. Main in a statement about the Panel’s findings. “The tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine was entirely preventable, and basic safety practices were not followed by Massey Energy.”

Investigators also found that Massey kept two sets of books where they recorded information from each shift. The company recorded safety hazards in an internal production and maintenance book, but did not record the safety hazards as required in examinations books, the books that inspectors would see when reviewing mine operations.

Overall, MSHA investigators found that Massey Energy failed to:

  • adequately record and address hazardous conditions
  • control coal dust
  • maintain structural integrity
  • maintain equipment
  • record gas and air reading as required
  • maintain adequate ventilation
  • adequately train miners

According to MSHA, Massey Energy illegally used a system in which security guards radioed the mine office when mine inspectors arrived, then dispatchers and employees tracked the movements of mine inspectors within the mine. This gave mine employees at least an hour to correct potential violations or shut down before the inspector reached their area. The mine even had a system to increase airflow in areas under inspection.

How did Massey Energy deal with internal safety hazard complaints from lower management and miners? MSHA says the company, concerned only with meeting production goals without regard to worker safety, threatened and intimidated miners with job loss and retribution.

“Massey knew it was having serious compliance problems and failed to effectively fix them,” Secretary Main said. “However, as the GIIP report points out, Massey did more than fail to act. Massey promoted a culture that ‘prized production over safety’ and where ‘wrongdoing became acceptable.’ As such, it violated the law and disregarded basic safety practices.”

Since the explosion, MSHA has interviewed 266 people. However, eighteen managers cited their 5th Amendment Rights and declined to speak with investigators.

The Washington Post reports that authorities have charged Massey security chief Hughie Stover with lying to FBI and MSHA investigators and obstruction of justice for directing an employee to destroy thousands of pages of mine security documents.

MSHA will withhold certain evidence because the U.S. Department of Justice is also conducting a criminal investigation of the worker’s deaths.

“Though our investigation is ongoing, we have been holding briefings throughout the process to keep the public informed and share what we can,” said Assistant Secretary Main. “MSHA also has pledged to cooperate with the U.S. attorney and the FBI as they bring to justice those who may have broken the law. This public briefing will be a thorough look at what we know so far, while keeping in mind the need to support other ongoing investigations.”

Alpha Natural Resources has since bought Massey Energy Corporation and its liabilities.

MSHA informed the families of victims about their findings before release to the public.

"Massey didn’t do their job, providing these men with a safe work area,” Clay Mullins, who lost a brother in the mine explosion, told Huffington Post. “MSHA didn’t do their job by enforcing the law and making them provide the men with a safe working environment. Same with the state. I blame all three parties. And I still do. And I will, until the day I die.”