Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/05/ubb-vigil-480x319.jpgMourners hold a vigil on April 10 for the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch explosion. (EPA/ZUMApress.com)
Driving out of Charleston, south on Rte. 119, you can’t miss it: an enormous billboard, on the left side of the road, with a message from the Patriot Coal Corporation: “Be Proud of Where You Work.”
Not merely self-promotional, the statement is also a thinly veiled shot at Massey Energy, Appalachia’s dominant coal producer — and one with a reputation for putting profits above worker safety. The billboard message implies that, unlike its larger rival, Patriot’s approach to safety ensures innocuous conditions in its mines and the well-being of its workers.
[Environment1] Well, not quite.
Since April 5, when the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 workers inside, Patriot’s 11 underground coal mines in Appalachia have racked up roughly 350 safety violations, according to a review of federal records by TWI. The violations include scores of citations indicating problems with ventilation systems and the accumulation of combustible materials — the very conditions thought to have caused the deadly blast at the UBB project. Of those 350 violations, 120 were deemed “significant and substantial,” indicating that they are “reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness.”
Patriot’s Highland 9 Mine, in Union County, Ky., for example, has tallied 83 violations since April 6, of which 19 fall into the S&S category, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data. In Monongalia County, W.Va., the company’s Federal No. 2 mine has been hit with 74 safety citations over the same span, including 28 deemed an immediate threat to miner safety. The list goes on.
Patriot, based in St. Louis, did not respond to calls last week requesting comment.
The figures are a cogent reminder that, though the spotlight might currently be on Massey in the wake of the UBB disaster, the corporate attitude of wringing the most profits from Appalachia’s coal mines — even if, at times, it means sacrificing worker safety — is hardly limited to just one company. Indeed, Maria Gunnoe, an environmental activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said Friday that the Massey model — an extremely successful one from a perspective of strict business — is starting to spread throughout the industry, at the potential threat to the miners underground.
“Companies see Massey getting away with things,” Gunnoe said, “so they start doing those things themselves.”
Patriot’s track record hasn’t been overlooked by officials at MSHA, who are cracking down on lax mine-safety practices in the wake of the UBB tragedy. Indeed, of the 57 troubled mines that MSHA identified last month as significant or repeat safety violators, five were Patriot-owned operations in either West Virginia or Kentucky. (Only Massey had more mines on the list, with nine.)
Yet in at least some cases, the additional scrutiny doesn’t seem to be improving conditions. Indeed, federal officials last week forced the closing of the Harris No. 1 mine, a Patriot-owned project in Boone County, W.Va., over a faulty ventilation system — a vital tool that prevents the accumulation of toxic gasses and combustible coal dust.
Leslie Fitzwater, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, told Reuters that MSHA officials had warned mine operators about low oxygen levels in some parts of the Harris mine. But the company hadn’t fixed the problem when regulators reinspected the project last Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Congress is taking a closer look at the nation’s mine-safety rules as well, with the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subpanel on labor scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue on Thursday. Massey CEO Don Blankenship is scheduled to testify. No one else representing the coal industry, however, was expected to speak.