Former Miner Details Dangers of Massey Mines

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 7:00 am
Vigil

Mourners held a vigil after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

Beckley, W.Va. — As lawmakers mull better ways to prevent mining accidents following this month’s deadly blast in Southern West Virginia, one long-time veteran of the Appalachian mines has a suggestion:

[Environment1]“Break down these criminal enterprises like Massey Energy,” said Chuck Nelson, who worked for Massey in underground mines for most of the 1990s. “That is the best possible solution.”

Massey, the Virginia-based coal giant, is facing intense scrutiny in the wake of the April 5 explosion at its Upper Big Branch Mine south of Charleston, which killed 29 miners. Prior to the blast, federal inspectors had cited the project for more than 120 safety violations this year alone, including two citations issued the day of the explosion. Dozens of other Massey mines in Appalachia have racked up thousands of similar violations, leading critics on and off Capitol Hill to accuse the company of putting profits above the well-being of its workers — a charge vehemently denied by Massey officials.

Nelson, who left Massey in 2000, says that’s simply the company’s business model. In an interview with TWI from his Raleigh County home, the retired Nelson described a company culture — perpetuated by higher-ups — that systemically disregarded safety measures in the name of greater coal production. For example:

  • Mine ventilation systems utilize so-called line curtains to direct the flow of fresh air into underground work chambers in order to prevent highly combustible methane gas from accumulating. Massey, Nelson said, encouraged the miners to jerk down those curtains lest they get in the way of the heavy equipment and slow the process of harvesting coal.
  • Mine operators are also required to dilute combustible coal dust through a process known as rock dusting (which usually means dousing walls with limestone dust). Rock dusting should occur throughout the day, but at the Massey mines, Nelson said, rock dusting was commonly done only at the end of the shift.
  • As a protection against black lung disease, inspectors can ask miners to carry dust pumps gauging the levels of coal dust in a work chamber. It wasn’t uncommon in Massey mines, Nelson claimed, to hang those pumps near ventilation fans instead, where they’d detect only the fresh air flowing in from above-ground.

When miners learned that government inspectors were headed into a mine, Nelson added, they would race to hang curtains, fling the rock dust and generally try to get the place in compliance with the safety rules. When the inspectors left, “we were back to doing the same old business as usual.”

“This happened every day that I worked with Massey,” said Nelson, now a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “I worked at six different Massey mines and every single one of ‘em operated the same way.”

Because almost all of Massey’s mines are non-union, workers fear the repercussions if they report safety issues, according to several leaders of the United Mine Workers of America who spoke with TWI Tuesday. Gary Young, a senior representative with the UMWA’s District 29 office in Beckley, said that Massey workers in particular have the threat of unemployment hovering over them. They know, Young said, “that there are 300 people outside ready to take [their] spot.”

Nelson — who worked in union-backed mines for nearly 20 years before moving to Massey for roughly eight — echoed that sentiment. “I knew that if I said something, I wouldn’t have a job tomorrow,” he said. Nelson said he lost favor with the company a decade ago when he complained about the damage being inflicted on his home by a Massey-owned mountaintop removal project. (The outspoken activist has since moved to another hollow.)

Don Blankenship, Massey’s hard-nosed CEO, has defended the company’s safety record, arguing that the number of violations it’s racked up — particularly at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where this month’s tragedy occurred — were comparable to other operations of similar size. Safety violations, he said in the immediate wake of the blast, are “a normal part of the mining process.”

More recently, Blankenship that the company’s long record of safety violations is irrelevant to the recent disaster. “When somebody says, ‘Did the violations have anything to do with the accident?’ — they should not,” he told Charleston’s Daily Mail. “Because every violation is abated and agreed to by everyone before there is any further mining. So you would not think that any violation of the past had any relevance.”

The White House, however, disagrees, and last week President Obama announced new steps for mining reform, including the immediate re-inspection of all mines with a troubling safety record. Congress is jumping in as well, with both the Senate and the House scheduled to hold hearings on mining safety shortly.

Meanwhile, President Obama and Vice President Biden will attend a memorial service in Beckley Sunday for the 29 miners killed this month. Obama himself will deliver the eulogy. There are many in Raleigh County who are hoping that, to prevent the next disaster, he’ll offer more than words.

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Pingback posted April 21, 2010 @ 10:02 am

[...] In the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, a former miner is telling lawmakers to “Break down these criminal enterprises like Massey Energy.” [...]


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S in PA
Comment posted April 22, 2010 @ 7:51 am

Do you happen to know if Blankenship/Massey had life insurance policies on their employees, as a lot of companies do? If so, how much money did they make from the deaths of their employees?


jporter10
Comment posted April 22, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

I was employed in the Southern underground mines of Wyoming. It was an experience like I never had before. Dark is dark, creaking is creaking. When the ceiling sloughs off, it puts your fight/flight into high gear. We too had policies about mine inspectors. When they were coming down into the mine, we got calls to quit work and grab a broom or a shovel; cover up anything that was broken or illegal; shut off all equipment so hydraulic fluid did not squirt on the inspector. The mine dude was completely ignorant of mine operations in reality. He had so much reflective tape on his body, that he could never had snuck up to catch someone doing something illegal. We always got high marks, 'cause we were not doing any mining while he was there.


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lucywright
Comment posted April 26, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

Seriously, a company can have a life insurance policy on an employee? So, the companies incentive to keep things safe for their workers is what? If I was a family member of one of those who died in the mines and I found out that the company had a policy on my relative….well, I don't even know what to say here. I do believe that the families and the country are ready to see any mine owners that put their workers at risk after being told of safety violations need to be prosecuted.


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Pingback posted April 27, 2010 @ 7:16 pm

[...] Former Miner Details Dangers of Massey Mines « The Washington … [...]


Por: s en el pa
Pingback posted April 28, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

[...] ¿Por casualidad sabes si Blankenship / Massey contaban con políticas de seguro de vida de sus empleados, ya que muchas de las empresas a hacer? Si es así, ¿cuánto dinero se hacen de la muerte de sus empleados? URL del artículo original http://washingtonindependent.com/82833/former-miner-details-dangers-of-massey-mines/comment-page-1#c... [...]


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[...] appeals two thirds of its numerous safety citations, more than any other coal company. And they are notoriously hostile and evasive to federal inspectors. Given their clear intent to skirt federal oversight in any way possible, the fact that the FBI is [...]


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Pingback posted May 1, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

[...] appeals two thirds of its numerous safety citations, more than any other coal company. And they are notoriously hostile and evasive to federal inspectors. Given their clear intent to skirt federal oversight in any way possible, the fact that the FBI is [...]


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Pingback posted May 5, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

[...] He takes aim both at mountaintop removal-the extraordinarily harmful mining practice-and at an unnamed company with a dismal safety record. This is quite clearly Massey Energy, which lost 29 workers in an explosion this spring and is currently under FBI investigation for possibly bribing safety inspectors. The Washington Independent’s Mike Lillis has been talking to former Massey employees and uncovering horrifying safety practices. [...]


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Pingback posted May 6, 2010 @ 2:06 am

[...] He takes aim both at mountaintop removal-the extraordinarily harmful mining practice-and at an unnamed company with a dismal safety record. This is quite clearly Massey Energy, which lost 29 workers in an explosion this spring and is currently under FBI investigation for possibly bribing safety inspectors. The Washington Independent’s Mike Lillis has been talking to former Massey employees and uncovering horrifying safety practices. [...]


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North Capitol Street » Blog Archive » Page Missing From Safety Log at Massey’s Doomed Upper Big Branch Mine
Pingback posted May 14, 2010 @ 11:01 am

[...] likely has no direct correlation to the deadly blast. But it does raise some more questions about the corporate culture of Massey [...]


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Pingback posted May 21, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

[...] the safety data kept by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, a number of Massey miners (both former and current) have said that Massey nurtures a workplace culture where coal production takes [...]


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HafcoVac
Comment posted July 29, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

It is truly sad to see such an article! It is mind boggling that in this modern day and age – that such tragedies still occur far too often. When a worker is intimidated into remaining silent because they are afraid of repercussions if they try to address safety concerns – how much worse can it be?

We are in this particular industry because we design and manufacture the explosion proof rock dusters that are mentioned in this article. They can save lives. Like any safety equipment, however, training and diligence from all levels of employees is crucial for proper use.

Mining accidents destroy lives and shatter families and negatively impact the town and area where the incident occurs. Because of these reasons, it should be a community effort to insist on stringent governmental regulations, and within the mine itself, the implementation of widespread awareness and safety solutions from executives and upper management down to the men underground.


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