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Dozens More Massey Mines Cited as Unsafe

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/04/blankenship-480x337.jpgMassey Energy CEO Don Blankenship gives an interview on Tuesday after an explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine killed at least 25 people. (Xinhua/ZUMApress.com)

The federal investigators readying their probe into the massive explosion that killed at least 25 West Virginia coal miners this week might take note: The dozens of other active tunnel mines owned by the same energy company have run up thousands of safety violations this year alone, according to a review of federal records by TWI. Hundreds of those citations target the same problems with ventilation and methane buildup that many suspect sparked the West Virginia disaster.

[Environment1] Massey Energy — the Virginia-based coal giant that owns the Upper Big Branch mine, the site of Monday’s tragedy — also controls 41 other underground coal mines currently active in Appalachia. Investigators have cited those projects for 2,074 violations since the start of the year, according to federal documents. The citations run a spectrum, but hundreds charge mine operators with failing to maintain air quality detectors, failing to ensure proper ventilation, allowing combustible material to accumulate, and a host of other infractions related to miner safety.

At the Upper Big Branch — where rescue teams were still searching Wednesday night for four missing miners — investigators had cited 124 similar safety violations this year. More than 50 of them were issued in March alone.

On Wednesday, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, a branch of the Labor Department, sent a team to Upper Big Branch to begin investigating whether the conditions cited in those violations sparked the explosion.

“The very best way we can honor [the miners] is to do our job,” Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement announcing the team.

But as those officials prepare to look backwards in search of what went wrong at Upper Big Branch, a growing chorus of voices is urging policymakers to examine also the corporate culture that, they say, has led companies like Massey to disregard worker safety in the name of profit-making.

“This incident isn’t just a matter of happenstance, but rather the inevitable result of a profit-driven system and reckless corporate conduct,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “Many mining companies have given too little attention to safety over the years and too much to the bottom line.”

As far as recent safety violations go, the Upper Big Branch mine has plenty of company. In fact, it doesn’t even rank first among the Massey-owned underground mines with the most safety violations this year. That distinction goes to Freedom Mine #1, in Pike County, Ky., which tallied 187 such citations, according to documents posted by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Among the infractions, investigators cited accumulations of combustible materials and a failure to maintain escapeways. A man answering the phone Wednesday at Freedom Energy Company — the Kentucky-based Massey subsidiary that operates the mine — hung up on a reporter.

Other notable Massey-controlled mines currently in operation include:

  • The Justice # 1 Mine in Boone County, W.Va. Operated by the Independence Coal Company, the project has been hit with 115 safety violations this year, including citations surrounding air-quality detectors and ventilation plans. (A woman answering the phone for Independence Wednesday said the company doesn’t talk to reporters.)
  • The Alloy Powellton Mine in Fayette County, W.Va. Run for Massey by the Mammoth Coal Company, the operation has received 80 citations this year, including those targeting its plan to control methane buildup. (No one answered the phone at Mammoth Wednesday.)
  • The Slip Ridge Cedar Grove Mine in Martin County, Ky., which has attracted 40 citations this year, including problems with combustible material found too close to ventilation fans. (The Marfork Coal Company, which runs Slip Ridge, referred questions to Massey. Massey didn’t return calls for comment.)

Outside of coal country, the infractions have flown largely under the radar. But in the wake of Monday’s explosion — the worst mining tragedy in at least 26 years — there are new calls, on and off Capitol Hill, for better enforcement of the nation’s mining safety regulations. And Massey, no stranger to controversy, will be the center of attention.

Indeed, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) — a long-time defender of the coal industry who represents the miners killed at Upper Big Branch — told CNN Wednesday that it’s “valid” to question Massey’s dedication to worker safety. “Something’s fishy,” he said. “This company has a rather maverick reputation.”

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) also took a shot at Massey, issuing a statement maintaining that miners “deserve … an employer who respects and values their safety.”

Massey did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. But CEO Don Blankenship this week has defended the company’s performance, telling the West Virginia MetroNews that safety violations are “a normal part of the mining process.” Massey’s safety operations, he told CNN Wednesday, “are typically in better shape than others.”

For Massey, the scrutiny is hardly new. And the outspoken Blankenship has only stoked the coals of criticism. In a now infamous 2005 memo, for example, Blankenship instructed his deep mine superintendents to ignore any requests unrelated to coal production.

“If any of you have 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,” the memo said. “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.”

In another telling episode, a young Blankenship outlined his business philosophy in a 1984 interview.

“Unions, communities, people — everybody’s gonna have to accept that, in the United States, we have a capitalist society,” Blankenship said. “And that capitalism, from a business viewpoint, is survival of the most productive.”

With congressional leaders already calling for hearings on Monday’s explosion, Blankenship will almost certainly have a chance to tell lawmakers that himself.

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