Union report blames Massey
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The nation's worst mining disaster in 40 years was an act of "industrial homicide," the United Mine Workers of America said Tuesday.
In a sternly worded report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the union said mine owner Massey Energy was "solely responsible" for allowing dangerous conditions that contributed to a "massive slaughter" at the Raleigh County mine in April 2010.
The report was the third report this year to paint a damning picture of conditions at the mine before a spark there set off a cascading series of explosions that killed 29 men.
The UMW's report revealed little new information, in part because it agreed with the major findings and technical analysis of two previous reports.
Upper Big Branch asked the union to represent them in an investigation of the explosion. Upper Big Branch - like the vast majority of Massey mines - was non-union. Massey no longer exists as a stand-alone company. Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey earlier this year.
The UMW said Massey employees - some of whom now work for Alpha - need to be prosecuted for "permitting dangerous conditions at the mine."
"Theirs is not a guilt of omission but rather, based on the facts publicly available, the Union believes that Massey Energy and its management were on notice of and recklessly tolerated mining conditions that were so egregious that the resulting disaster constituted a massive slaughter in the nature of an industrial homicide," the 92-page report said.
Union President Cecil Roberts specifically wants to see charges brought against former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.
Roberts dismissed arguments that responsibility shouldn't reach into the boardrooms, noting that Blankenship was known for micromanaging his mines.
While there is no legal definition of "industrial homicide," Roberts suggested Massey employees could be charged with negligent manslaughter or some other offense.
"You realize if this had happened outside the coal industry, out on the street somewhere - that people had been negligent to this degree and someone had been killed - they would have went to jail," Roberts said during a press conference at Embassy Suites in Charleston.
Federal prosecutors are said to be looking into criminal wrongdoing related to the explosion. But so far charges have been filed only against a security guard, and the charges aren't directly related to the explosion. That trial began this week.
"I think we've got a second tragedy," Roberts said, "that we've got a security guard that's been indicted and Don Blankenship can't figure out where to spend all his money."
Roberts suggested if federal prosecutors aren't going to press charges, local prosecutors should consider handing out indictments.
The UMW report lists 18 Massey employees who "played an integral role in the events leading up to and resulting in the explosion."
At least two, Blankenship and Massey Chief Operating Office Chris Adkins, did not join Alpha after the sale.
As for the rest, an Alpha spokesman said, "Some individuals transferred to the Alpha field organization and some did not.
"We hold ourselves and our people to a high standard. If there are issues to address when all the final reports are in, and all the investigations are completed, based on the conclusiveness of what we've learned, we'll take appropriate action," Alpha spokesman Ted Pile said in an email.
He said the company would examine all allegations made.
Pile also said Alpha had yet to reach its own conclusion about what caused the explosion.
He said the company's own "Running Right" safety program was "well received by former Massey employees."
"Our goal isn't to defend the way Massey did things in the past, but to make sure things are done right in the future, Alpha's way," Pile said. "Our value system and commitment to Alpha's Running Right safety process is the cornerstone of our company."
Roberts said he hopes Alpha succeeds.
Roberts also attempted to head off criticism that mine safety regulations kill jobs. Instead, he said he wanted only to prevent unsafe mines from killing people.
"We want jobs but we want safe jobs. And we want to be able to go to work in the morning and kiss our wives and hug our children - and see them in the evening," Roberts said. "And please excuse us for that demand."
He said the goal was to hold all mines to the same high standard or else companies would race to the bottom, taking shortcuts on safety to drive up profits.
The UMW made 13 recommendations ranging from having Massey employees prosecuted to having federal regulators instead of company officials provide training on miners' rights under the federal Mine Act.
The union report focused on the mine's ventilation system, which a union spokesman described as "way out of compliance." A proper ventilation system is needed to prevent the buildup of explosive gases and coal dust.
The report also focused on a trip two Massey officials made into the mine shortly after the explosion. The two men remained in the mine, but it's not clear what they did.
In a new revelation, the union said a new or new-looking methane monitor was found near the section of the mine that was producing coal. The report does not directly say it was put there after the explosion but does suggest that as an explanation.
"It is unclear how far they traveled in this area," the report said of the two officials. "However, the investigators found a methane sensor inby the shearer that appeared to be new. Despite the explosion, it was not damaged, nor was it covered with any soot or dust."
"Inby" is a mining term that means in the direction of the area that is producing coal. The shearer is a large machine used to mine coal.
But the UMW's conclusions on the cause of the explosion were consistent with those of two previous reports. Namely, that the large machine that mines coal caused sparks when it cut into the coal seam, igniting a small amount of methane. Then, accumulations of coal dust provided fuel for a second, more deadly explosion.
A fourth report prepared by Massey officials blamed the explosion on a sudden surge of methane, but that report has not received much attention, and its key finding has been widely disputed and rejected by the other three reports.
A preliminary report by federal investigators, for instance, determined coal dust was the main fuel for the explosion.
One way to keep coal dust from blowing up is to apply rock dust, a technique that miners have known since the 1890s can help prevent explosions. Upper Big Branch's longwall - the site of the most intense and profitable mining - had never been rock dusted, a U.S. Mine Health and Safety Administration official has said. For one thing, the mine's rock dusting machine was inadequate.
Roberts said Massey spent tens of millions of dollars on the machine used to produce coal but did not spend the tens of thousands of dollars it would have taken to buy a state-of-the-art machine to apply rock dust.
"Isn't it ironic that for less than a penny a ton we could have saved 29 miners?" Roberts said, citing a calculation he made.
Contact writer Ry Rivard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1796.