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The Holes in Massey’s Story « The Washington Independent

Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine — which exploded tragically last month, killing 29 miners and all but killing a 30th – was among the worst safety violators in the country. Since the start of 2009, federal inspectors closed all or part of the mine 61 times due to immediate safety concerns; in 2009, it racked up 515 safety violations; and despite Massey’s creation of a safety committee to address the trend, it was on pace to meet that number this year.

Just don’t try to convince Don Blankenship that the problems were the mine owner’s fault. Appearing before Congress Thursday for the first time since the tragedy, Massey’s CEO adamantly defended the company’s safety record under his watch, arguing that Massey is “an innovator of safety enhancements” and an example for the industry.

“Massey does not place profits over safety,” he told Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) during a sparsely attended hearing on mine safety. “We never have, and we never will. Period.”

The Democrats, though, were skeptical — and not just because Blankenship was accompanied by former Karl Rove attorney Robert Luskin. Quite apart from 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 priority over miner safety. And Blankenship himself seemed to confirm those charges in a now-infamous 2005 memo in which he ordered his deep mine supervisors to “ignore” engineers’ requests for tasks unrelated to harvesting coal.

The discrepancy between the hard evidence and Massey’s claims was not lost on Byrd, who ripped into Blankenship over the issue.

“I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers,” Byrd said. ”I just can’t understand that.”

We ran a story this morning noting that Massey’s strategy seems to be to shift the blame for the explosion onto MSHA. But there was plenty more that took place during the hearing. Some of the highlights we missed earlier:

  • Noting the 2005 memo, Harkin said, “It doesn’t sound like putting safety first to me.” Blankenship defended his missive, arguing that it was taken out of context. The note, Massey’s chief said, was referring to “construction work … being done at a time that it didn’t need to be done.” Putting miners on a construction job they aren’t familiar with, he added, threatened their safety. The trouble with that argument is that the memo instructs the supervisors to ignore requests, not only to “do construction jobs,” but also to “build overcasts … or whatever.” Overcasts are safety features designed to ensure that vent systems are working effectively.
  • Byrd asked about a New York Times story in which a “longtime foreman” at the UBB mine told reporters that mine shafts had been sealed with “rags and garbage” rather than the approved sealants, which are designed to prevent methane from leaking out of closed off sections of the project. Without offering any evidence, Blankenship simply denied the allegations, “As best as I can figure out, that’s not the case.”
  • In his testimony, Blankenship claimed that MSHA had inspected the UBB mine “just days” before the April 5 explosion, finding it to be in “good condition.” (In his written testimony, “good condition” is in quotes, indicating that this was the language MSHA used.) However Joseph Main, MSHA’s chief, pointed out that the agency has no such designation as “good condition.”
  • When Byrd asked why it required a recent MSHA inspection “blitz” to force several Massey mines to comply with safety rules, Blankenship replied that there are some things that are out of his hands. “I and others can’t be at the mine every day,” he said. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because Joseph Main, MSHA’s chief, had said precisely the same thing earlier in the hearing. “MSHA cannot be in every mine, every day, on every shift,” Main said. “Nor should it.”

It’s not going out too far on a limb to guess that lawmakers will likely accept Main’s response as the more credible one.

“The responsibility to comply with these laws,” Byrd said, “is yours, Mr. Blankenship.”

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