Massey CEO Don Blankenship has defended his company this week in the wake of Monday’s horrific mining explosion, arguingthat Massey’s safety precautions “are typically in better shape than others.”
He’ll have a tough time explaining this.
The Upper Big Branch Mine, the site of the explosion that’s killed at least 25 miners, was either fully or partly closed 61 times for safety reasons in 2009 and 2010, the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. is reportingthis afternoon, citing Labor Department documents prepared for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.).
Officials from the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration issued 54 withdrawal orders to the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2009 and seven so far in 2010, according to the documents.
Fifty-four of those withdrawal orders “were issued when inspectors found Massey subsidiary Performance Coal exhibited an ‘unwarrantable failure’ to comply with federal health and safety standards,” Ward writes.
There’s a distinction to be made here. Issuing withdrawal orders is different than closing the mine altogether, which would require MSHA to get court approval first. In cases of closure, officials would have to prove that mine operators showed “a pattern of violations” — a step that’s been complicated by the skyrocketing number of appealsbeing filed by mining companies to protest citations. (After all, how do you prove a pattern based on violations that are in dispute?) Indeed, MSHA never even tried to cite the Upper Big Branch for such a pattern, despite the fact that more than 1,300 citationswere filed against the mine in the last five years.
The sheer volume of citations seems to have shocked even those lawmakers who follow the coal industry most closely. “This mine has certainly exhibited a pattern of violations,” Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) told Fox News Wednesday.
Asked by Fox if Congress “needs to change some laws” to empower MSHA to close mines more easily, Rahall didn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt,” he said.