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Independent Report Says Massey at Fault for Deadly Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion

The first independent investigation into the cause of the massive explosion that killed 29 coal miners at the Upper Big Branch mine has concluded that the accident could have been prevented and that the responsiblity for the tragedy rests squarely with the mine’s owners, Massey Energy.   From the report:   The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking. The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.   Of course, Massey representatives immediately challenged the report’s findings.   From the Wall Street Journal:   “We have just received Davitt McAteer’s report and are carefully reviewing it,” said Massey General Counsel Shane Harvey.   “We agree with Davitt that the industry needs to examine whether it can achieve better methane-monitoring technology. At UBB, all methane monitors were functional and yet the mine experienced a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas that was not detected in time to prevent the explosion.   “We disagree with Davitt’s conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust. Again, we believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas.”   Mr. Harvey also has said the company will challenge government dust samples taken after the explosion, saying the explosion affected the dust composition and made sampling inaccurate.   But Massey’s self-motivated, CYA impulses notwithstanding, this report makes it abundantly clear that not only was this tragedy brought on by Massey’s reckless disregard for the lives of its workers, it could happen again.   The report makes several recommendations to prevent future, similar tragedies. Specifically, the report states:

  • MSHA and WVMHST inspectors and their supervisors are the watchdogs for mine workers. When faced with a mine operator that repeatedly ignores, evades or disregards fundamental safety regulations, federal and state inspectors and supervisors must craft enforcement strategies which match the compliance approach of the mine company. This means using all the administrative and legal authority at the agencies’ disposal, and promptly elevating to supervisors any regulatory, resource or political constraints that prevent action needed to protect miners’ lives.
  • Federal and state mine safety laws allow mine operators to use administrative or judicial review to avoid or delay paying citations and penalties. Mine operators know they can contest violations and tie them up in litigation for years. They also recognize that by litigating citations, the company stands a good chance of getting the fines reduced to a fraction of the original amount.
  • Miners’ rights to a safe workplace are compromised when the operator’s commitment to production comes at the cost of safety. Workers should not be penalized if operators fail to follow safety requirements so that miners’ interests can be separated from the operator’s interest.

  The fact is, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and its partner in workplace health and safety enforcement, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are woefully underfunded and overmatched. Companies like Massey systematically disregard the health and well-being of their employees because they know they can get away with it.   Until Congress steps up and passes not just comprehensive mine safety legislation, but comprehensive workplace safety legislation, miners and workers will continue to die — perhaps not in such high-profile incidents, but one or two at a time, month after month, year after year.   Sadly, more than a year after the Massey miners lost their lives, Congress has yet to take any action.   Hopefully, this report will provide reluctant members of Congress with all the political cover they need to do the right thing and pass meaningful workplace safety legislation now, before another Upper Big Branch disaster occurs.   They can no longer say they weren’t warned.