When miners’ lives come last

April 7, 2010

Alan Maass reports on the West Virginia mine blast that killed at least 25 miners.

THE DEADLIEST mine disaster in more than a quarter-century took the lives of at least 25 coal miners, with several more severely injured and hopes fading for four others still trapped 36 hours after the explosion.

The tragedy took place at the Upper Big Branch South Mine in Montcoal, W. Va., about 30 miles south of the capital of Charleston. The Upper Big Branch is a nonunion mine--owned, via a subsidiary, by Massey Energy, a coal company giant notorious for its bitter and often violent clashes with organized labor and its unyielding opposition to government regulations to protect health and safety and the environment.

The massive explosion took place during a shift change on Monday afternoon. The blast was heard and felt for miles. "There are stories of rail lines [inside the mine] being twisted like pretzels," said Nick Rahall, the Democratic congressman who represents the area surrounding the mine.

The force of the blast suggests the cause was a buildup of methane gas that ignited, according to experts--possibly when the miners coming off shift were exiting in an underground vehicle.

Michelle McKinney holds a photo of her father, Benny Willingham, killed in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine
Michelle McKinney holds a photo of her father, Benny Willingham, killed in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine

Government regulations require coal companies to have a plan for venting the methane that seeps out of the rock where coal is found. But as with many other mine tragedies over the years, Upper Big Branch had been cited over and over for breaking these and other rules.

Just in the past month, federal inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited Massey for 57 infractions at Upper Big Branch--including failing to develop and follow a ventilation plan. Other breaches included failing to control coal dust; inadequate protection from roof cave-ins; failing to mark and maintain escape routes; not having proper firefighting equipment; and allowing combustible materials to accumulate.

In 2009, the MSHA found nearly 500 violations at Upper Big Branch--including 48 classified as "unwarrantable failure orders," which are the most serious--and imposed hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

But like the other big mining companies, Massey rarely pays the full value of these penalties--if they pay anything at all. According to the Daily Mail, of the $1.5 million in fines issued against Massey since 2007, the company has paid less than $300,000. Management at the Upper Big Branch mine was in the process of challenging the most recent MSHA citations.

Upper Big Branch also reported an injury rate that was worse than average for seven of the last 10 years, and three miners have died on the job in the last 12 years.

A new federal law passed in the wake of the 2006 Sago mine tragedy in West Virginia--where 12 miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning during the 40 hours it took to find them after an explosion--was supposed to make a difference in disasters like these. But the improved communications systems and emergency equipment required by the law--if Massey had implemented them--were likely destroyed in the huge explosion at Upper Big Branch.

Laws and regulations are only as effective as the means to enforce them. The coal industry is notorious for relying on its political allies to keep the MSHA on a tight leash. And at a nonunion mine like Upper Big Branch and Sago, miners have little recourse if they feel their health and safety is in danger.

COMPANIES like Massey will go to any length to make sure the situation stays this way.

Massey is the fourth-biggest U.S. coal company by revenue, with overall income of nearly $3 billion in 2009. It has a long history of operations in the Appalachian region, and it became notorious more recently for pioneering the "technique" of mountaintop removal mining.

Massey is run by CEO Don Blankenship, who wields the company's economic power in the region ruthlessly in the political arena. For example, during the 2004 election year, Blankenship spent $3 million on a smear campaign against West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Warren McGraw because of McGraw's reputation for ruling against coal companies.

McGraw lost to Brent Benjamin, the candidate Blankenship supported. Three years later, Benjamin ignored calls to recuse himself and cast the deciding vote in a ruling that overturned a $70 million verdict against Massey for defrauding a contractor.

Blankenship was also caught taking another West Virginia high court justice along on a vacation to the French Riviera.

Predictably, Blankeship is a global warming doubter, known for heaping abuse on Al Gore for his movie The Inconvenient Truth, and on environmentalists who demand action from the coal companies on climate change. Massey is active in industry associations that lobby Washington against tougher environmental protections.

After the Upper Big Branch disaster, Blankenship released a statement claiming that the company's "top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families."

But Massey's real priorities were revealed in an internal memo written by Blankenship in October 2005. The memo became public as part of a trial stemming from the death of two miners in a 2006 fire in another Massey mine in West Virginia.

In the memo, Blankenship wrote to mine superintendents: "If any of you has been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal."

Mine "overcasts" are critical parts of a proper ventilation system, and "construction jobs" was Blankenship's veiled way of talking about other safety projects. The real meaning of the memo--that profits come first--was clear to everyone. As Blankenship concluded, "This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills."

Many commentators and bloggers focused on Blankenship as the politically connected Republican villain of the story, and he richly deserves all the contempt and abuse that comes his way.

But the coal industry's drive for profits is bipartisan. For example, Wilbur Ross, the founder of International Coal Group, responsible for the disaster at Sago, is a prominent Democrat who claims to be a "friend of the miners."

The real problem is a system that puts wealth and power first--and the environment and miners' lives last.

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