UMW calls Massey disaster 'industrial homicide'
Read the report : http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/ CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The United Mine Workers union on Tuesday accused Massey Energy of "industrial homicide" and demanded criminal prosecution of mine managers who ran the Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 workers died in an April 2010 explosion.
UMW experts issued their own 154-page report detailing what it called "gross violations" of accepted safety standards and a corporate "culture that demanded production at any cost."
"This should not have happened. This should not be tolerated," UMW President Cecil Roberts said at a Charleston press conference. "We think the people responsible for the operation of this mine should be held accountable."
Roberts said he's not pleased with the progress so far in a federal criminal probe that has produced only charges against a rank-and-file miner who faked foreman's credentials and a security director who is on trial this week, charged with lying to investigators and destroying evidence.
"We've got a security guard who has been indicted, but [former Massey CEO] Don Blankenship can't figure out how to spend all of his money," Roberts said.
The UMW report blasted non-union Massey, which is now part of Alpha Natural Resources, but also had harsh words for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.
Union officials criticized MSHA and the state for not shutting down the mine, despite repeated incidents of serious ventilation violations. But the UMW focused its criticism on the MSHA district office in Southern West Virginia, and didn't once mention MSHA chief Joe Main, a retired longtime union safety director, in its lengthy report.
In a prepared statement, Main said the UMW report's findings "underline the fact that MSHA can't be in every mine every shift, and that some mine operators take advantage of that.
"That's why we've called on Congress to provide us with the tools necessary to protect the health and safety of our nation's miners, including provisions to adequately protect whistleblowers from retaliation when they speak out about safety," Main said in the statement.
The UMW report, though, notes that MSHA did not use a variety of tools it already has -- such as inspection blitzes, pattern of violations orders and flagrant penalties of $200,000 per violation -- to crack down at Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion.
Upper Big Branch was a non-union mine, but UMW officials investigated the disaster after being named by surviving miners as their official representatives in the probe.
Alpha officials did not respond to Gazette requests for comment on the UMW report, but have previously said the company started its own investigation of the disaster after acquiring Massey in June.
Overall, UMW investigators agreed with the findings of longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer's team, which concluded the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that turned into a massive coal-dust blast because of Massey's poor safety practices.
Investigators believe the ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone on the longwall machine's shearer. They also believe that a coal-dust buildup underground sent what could have been a minor ignition into an explosion that rocketed in all directions, greatly increasing the damage and deaths. Like McAteer and his team, the UMW cited poor ventilation practices, illegal accumulations of highly explosive coal dust, and a failure to maintain water sprays and cutting bits on the longwall shearer.
While largely mirroring McAteer's conclusions and preliminary MSHA findings, the UMW report also provided a few interesting details that haven't previously been disclosed or made clear.
First, the report discloses that government investigators found a methane monitor in the mine's longwall section that was so undamaged and clean of dust and dirt that it appeared new.
Nearby, the union said, investigators found the remnants of a piece of ventilation curtain that appears to have been directing the flow of fresh air directly at the monitor, diluting any methane that might have been detected and making the monitor ineffective.
The UMW report discussed the methane monitor in a section of its report devoted in large part to recounting the fact that top mine officials Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead spent about four hours underground immediately after the explosion, unsupervised by government officials.
"It is not clear at this time what actions they may or may not have taken with respect to this methane sensor," said union spokesman Phil Smith. "However, since they have both asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, we may never know."
Massey officials have said Blanchard and Whitehead were trying to save lives, and did not tamper with anything underground after the explosion.
The UMW report also includes some new maps and descriptions of how the explosion shot in all directions, and then circles back on itself, leaving a wake of death and destruction underground. It points out that forces from the blast shot up through a former coal-transportation tunnel and scorched the roof of an adjacent mine.
And, UMW investigators believe that they isolated a specific -- and allegedly illegal -- change in ventilation by Massey officials that led to airflow problems and a methane buildup that allowed the initial ignition.
UMW officials offered more than a dozen recommendations for action and reforms, ranging from a new grand jury to investigate top Massey officials to more staffing for MSHA, independent probes of all major mining accidents, and a rule to outlaw the use of airlock doors instead of traditional ventilation control systems.
"While knowing the causes of these types of disasters is important in trying to prevent them in the future, it is also important for lawmakers and regulators to admit that after so many coal mine tragedies, it is time to stop the rhetoric and take real action to protect miners' health and safety," the union said in its report.
The UMW report acknowledged that "industrial homicide" is not a specific crime in West Virginia, but said, "There is evidence that the company's conduct interfered with the proper performance of mine health and safety laws and regulations to such an extreme extent that the union believes that [the] government would be able to prosecute company representatives under applicable criminal provisions for their roles in permitting the dangerous conditions in the UBB mine that killed 29 miners."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.