Massey Energy’s “corporate risk-taking” killed 29 miners

NYHTC — September 14, 2011

The explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 took the lives of 29 miners and devastated their families and communities. Two major investigations into its causes have made absolutely clear what the miners knew long before the April 5, 2010, explosion happened: the mine was a death trap, and Massey Energy, the owner, didn't care.

After the blast, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued one of its chillingly named "fatalgrams," announcing mining fatalities #3 through #31 of 2010 had occurred. This past June, at a public briefing on its investigation into the disaster, the agency closed its formal presentation with a blunt statement: "This explosion could and should have been prevented by the mine operator."

Another team of investigators activated by former West Virginia governor Joe Manchin III and led by J. Davitt McAteer, an internationally recognized expert in mine safety and the top mine safety official in the Clinton administration also concluded Massey was responsible for the explosion, saying it "was a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards[.]"

The report of the McAteer team documents the actions of a company focused on "keeping the coal running" and that valued profits far more than it did the lives of the men whose harrowing work produced them. In this regard, the report concluded:

The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards. .... It operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking.

Both investigations rejected Massey's explanation of what caused the explosion as being unsupported by the physical evidence and other facts.

It is not Massey alone, however, that has to bear responsibility for the train of events that led to the most serious mine disaster in 40 years. Both the Mine Safety and Health Administration and West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training failed in their statutory missions to protect miners from the multiple dangers that await them every time they enter a mine. The grim truth is and the McAteer report sets it out a lot of people knew the Big Branch mine was a disaster waiting to happen, that Massey was not going to do anything about it, that the mine safety enforcement provisions were both flawed and not being exercised to their fullest extent, and the watchdog agencies were ineffectual.

In the aftermath of the Big Branch tragedy, the public outcry, the two investigations, and the pleas of the bereaved families, what has changed? Basically nothing. To date, proposed reforms directed at remedying some of the gaping holes in mine safety and enforcement provisions remain unenacted. As to the laws and regulations that do exist, Republican fixation with budget cuts will cripple even further the feeble federal and state attempts at enforcement of these laws. Miners at other dangerous mines, like the Randolph mine in Boone County, West Virginia, will continue to worry that they will be the next victims of corporate greed and lax enforcement efforts, and the families of the dead Big Branch miners will continue to mourn. Meanwhile, not a single Massey executive has faced a criminal trial arising out of those 29 killings.

As for Don Blankenship, Massey's chief executive officer from 1992 through 2010, he's apparently doing fine. According to CNN, when he retired at the end of 2010, he received $2 million, and documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed he was to receive a further payment of $10 million July 1 of this year. In addition, he is to receive a monthly consulting fee of $5,000, plus expenses, for two years.

The formal report of the Mine Safety and Health Administration will reportedly issue sometime this fall.

Governor's Independent Investigation Panel, J. Davitt McAteer and associates. Upper Big Branch: The April 5, 2010, explosion: a failure of basic coal mine safety practices. May 2011.

Mine Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor. Upper Big Branch Mine - South/Mine ID: 46-084346, April 5, 2010, Accident: Public Briefing. June 29, 2011.

CNN Wire Staff. Massey's Blankenship to get $12 million on retirement. CNN December 7, 2010.

Photo courtesy of Biswarup Ganguly