Video: Veteran miners: 'It's coal first, safety last'

  1. Transcript of: Veteran miners: 'It's coal first, safety last'

    WILLIAMS: Ron Mott starting us off from Naoma , West Virginia . It's tough to watch some of it, Ron . And amid the sadness, some anger is starting to emerge in this community surrounding this mine about the company that runs it, but it's tempered by the need for jobs in what is truly a company town . Tom Costello has that angle of this story tonight . Tom, good evening .

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Hi, Brian. Good evening . On the very day of this explosion , this company was received two more federal safety violations. In fact, this is a company county. A lot of people here are fearful about losing their jobs, fearful to speak out. But today some did start to talk about what they think are questionable safety practices. Thirty-thousand people in West Virginia make their living off of coal, but with more than two dozen dead, some veteran miners who still work for Massey Energy say they believe the company 's lax approach to safety led to the tragedy at the Big Branch Mine .

    Unidentified Man: Coal first, safety last. That's how a lot of guys feel.

    COSTELLO: They fear retribution if they show their faces, but claim the largest energy company in central Appalachia isn't as safe as it should be. Ray worked in the mine for 28 years.

    RAY: There's no way that should've happened. If a federal state mine inspector went in there and found that, that mine should've been closed till they took care of it. That's just it.

    COSTELLO: After receiving 515 federal safety violations last year, Massey Energy has accumulated 124 more this year, including 10 violations for excessive levels of methane gas and dust, 40 similar violations over the last four years. Officials have said gas levels in the mine were far too high. Jeff Biggers has written about America 's coal industry and says the system is flawed.

    Mr. JEFF BIGGERS: I think we have to ask the question, why do we allow coal companies, for example, to contest violations that have been noted by inspectors and draw them out in the courts for months, if not years?

    COSTELLO: The controversial CEO of Massey Energy is concerned about tougher new mine safety laws.

    Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (Massey Energy CEO): No matter how you look at it, the accidents first of all are human tragedy; and second they disrupt you and cause additional regulations and issues, and none of us want that.

    COSTELLO: Jim Lucas was at the mine at the time of the explosion . Safety is not just the company 's job, he says, it's also each miner's responsibility.

    Mr. JIM LUCAS: Every day we put our head between two rocks. If you think about that, probably wouldn't do it. But we just go and do our job.

    COSTELLO: But many miners also insist inspectors need more authority to shut down unsafe mines .

    RAY: The law has got to change. In this country, unfortunately, every law that's ever been written for a coal miner has been by blood.

    COSTELLO: Inspectors have the authority to temporarily shut down a shaft or a mine until a particular violation is then addressed, but they don't have the authority to permanently shut down a mine for excessive or repeated

    violations. Brian: Tom Costello rounding out our coverage from Naoma , West Virginia , tonight . Tom, thanks.

    WILLIAMS:

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updated 4/7/2010 8:25:13 PM ET 2010-04-08T00:25:13

Federal inspectors found a string of safety violations at a sprawling West Virginia coal mine in the months and days leading up to an explosion that killed 25 this week, including two citations the day of the explosion. Miners were so concerned about the conditions that several told their congressman they were afraid to go back into the mine.

Records reviewed by The Associated Press paint a troubling picture of procedures at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of Monday's explosion in the heart of West Virginia coal country. Safety advocates said the mine's track record, particularly a pair of January violations that produced two of the heftiest fines in the mine's history, should have provoked stronger action by the mine operators and regulators.

In the January inspection, regulators found that dirty air was being directed into an escapeway where fresh air should be. They also found that an emergency air system was flowing in the wrong direction, which could leave workers without fresh air in their primary escape route.

Terry Moore, the mine foreman, told officials that he was aware of one of the problems and that it had been occurring for about three weeks.

"Mr. Moore engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence in that he was aware of the condition," the Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote in fining the company a combined $130,000.

Cited on day of blast
While records indicate those problems were fixed the same day, the mine's operator, Massey subisidiary Performance Coal Co., continued to rack up citations until the day of the blast. MSHA inspectors ticketed the mine Monday over inadequate maps of escape routes and an improper splice of electrical cable on a piece of equipment.

Trouble had been building at Upper Big Branch for a long time. Violations in 2009 were roughly double the amount from any previous year, and the January citation involving Moore was one of at least 50 "unwarrantable failure" violations assessed there in the past year, the most serious type of violation that MSHA can assess.

Video: Hopes dimming The January problems could have triggered an explosion if they weren't corrected, said Celeste Monforton, who spent six years as a special assistant to MSHA's assistant director and is now an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University.

"It's definitely a big, big, big, big signal — a red flag — about major problems in the mine," Monforton said.

The most serious violations could have warranted a criminal investigation, said Tony Oppegard, a Clinton appointee who served as the adviser to the assistant secretary of MSHA for 2½ years. Oppegard said regulators should have determined that the mine has a "pattern of violations," a rarely used distinction that can allow officials to shut down operations.

Concern about gas levels
"Had it been on a pattern of violations, maybe 25 lives or more would have been saved," Oppegard said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, whose district includes the mine about 30 miles south of Charleston, told the AP on Wednesday that he'd been hearing for at least two months from Upper Big Branch workers concerned about methane levels at the mine. Methane, a colorless, odorless gas common in underground mines, is suspected as the cause of the blast.

"I have talked to individuals who have been in coal mines or have loved ones who have been working in coal mines who will not be identified by name but will say that something is fishy here," Rahall said. "That there are corners being cut."

Rahall didn't say whether he took action on the complaints, which he said came from at least three people. Rahall spokesman Blake Androff later backed away from Rahall's comments, saying the complaints the congressman was referring to had only been made since the explosion.

Last year, MSHA ordered the mine closed 29 times to correct problems found by inspectors, said Kevin Stricklin, an MSHA administrator in West Virginia. He did not know why each citation was issued or how long the mine was forced to close each time, but closure times can vary widely.

'Very bad condition'
"Any time you issue a D order, it's a very bad condition," Stricklin said. "I don't want to call it unusual, but it's a serious condition."

Forced shutdowns are not uncommon, especially since 2008, when federal officials cracked down following a string of mine accidents that left dozens dead.

While the stepped-up enforcement has produced more citations, it has also led companies like Massey to sidestep the harshest punishments by appealing the fines.

In 2005, the year before the Sago mine disaster that killed 12, mines contested just 6 percent of the violations they faced. That rate steadily climbed to 27 percent last year, the AP found.

Massey is still contesting more than a third of all its violations at Upper Big Branch since 2007, according to an AP analysis. In the past year, federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine. Only 16 percent have been paid.

Image: Locator map of mine explosion in W. Virginia
Upper Big Branch also has a history of violations for not properly ventilating methane.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship has conceded that the explosion shows the mine was not completely safe, but he has insisted it was no more dangerous than comparable mines and maintains that Massey has a commendable safety record.

The industry has defended the practice of appealing its violations. Bruce Watzman, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association, has said in written comments submitted to Congress that it does not jeopardize mine safety. He did not return a call seeking further comment.

Safety officials warned Congress three months ago that the backlog of violations could undermine a crackdown on repeat offenders. A backlog of some 82,000 violations and $210 million in contested penalties is pending before a review commission. In 2009, companies protested roughly two-thirds of the $141 million in penalties assessed by federal regulators.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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