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Mine Disaster Probe Finds Intimidation, False Papers

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
June 29, 2011

Choosing safety over production was a firing offense at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine, according to a federal investigation of last year’s deadly explosion there.

Investigators reported Wednesday on the progress of their ongoing, 15-month-long probe. They provided new documentation of how low-level managers who made safety a priority were intimidated and, in some cases, dismissed.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration also reported alleged instances of falsification of official safety reports and referred those cases to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.

Those are the fresh findings in detailed presentations provided to the public and reporters Wednesday, and to the families of the disaster’s 29 victims Tuesday night. A formal final report is not expected until October at the earliest.

Most of the agency’s conclusions mirror earlier preliminary reports and the findings of an independent investigative team last month. The Upper Big Branch explosion, MSHA reported, is blamed on excessive and explosive coal dust, poor air flow underground, seeping and explosive methane gas, failed and disabled safety systems and a corporate culture that appeared to make coal production a priority even when dangerous conditions existed.

‘Go Home’

But MSHA also documented a pattern of intimidation at the mine. According to Kevin Stricklin, the coal mine safety chief at the agency:

– upper management threatened to fire frontline supervisors for not meeting production goals

– safety hazards, such as insufficient air, were not acceptable excuses for not “running” or digging coal

– a section foreman was fired for delaying production for about an hour to fix ventilation problems

– one of the Upper Big Branch victims was told, “If you can’t go up there to run coal just bring your [lunch] bucket outside and go home.”

That victim was 50-year-old Dean Jones, a veteran crew boss who tried to keep his men out of the mine when dangerous conditions existed, “because I told him to,” says his widow, Gina, who spoke after the family briefing Tuesday night.

“I said, ‘They don’t live your life. They don’t care about you,’” Gina Jones recalls, as she tries to stifle tears. “I said, ‘You’ve got family.’ I said, ‘Worry about yourself and your men.’”

Gina Jones says Dean Jones didn’t quit his job because the family worried about replacing medical coverage for their son 14-year-old Kyle, who has cystic fibrosis.

More Than One Set Of Books

Stricklin also disclosed new evidence that Massey officials hid safety problems from federal mine safety inspectors. Internal company production documents obtained by investigators detail serious safety problems at Upper Big Branch that were not disclosed in official safety reports mandated by federal law.

“It’s not a problem for a mine operator if they want to keep more than one set of books. That’s the prerogative,” Stricklin says. “But what they have to do is record the hazards of an examination underground in the official record book. And we found that wasn’t the case here.”

Safety examinations underground must be conducted during every work shift and safety problems and corrections must be noted. The examination books warn later shifts of dangers and the need for fixes. And they are reviewed by mine safety inspectors so they can spot areas underground that require extra scrutiny.

Massey Energy is no longer a freestanding corporate entity. The company was absorbed by Alpha Natural Resources in a friendly takeover June 1.

“Our goal isn’t to defend the way Massey did things in the past,” says Alpha spokesman Ted Pile, “but to make sure things are done right in the future, Alpha’s way.”

Pile says Alpha will review “all findings from all sources … this will take time.”

“Alpha’s way” is tied to a safety program called “Running Right,” but Alpha has had trouble distancing itself from Massey because the company has kept on the payroll former Massey managers responsible for some of the company’s most troubled mines.

That includes Massey executives Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead, who had direct corporate responsibility for Upper Big Branch. NPR has learned and Alpha has now confirmed that Blanchard and Whitehead have new positions at Alpha.

They are “in technical support positions and they have no direct line responsibility for our mining operations,” Pile says.

Former Massey CEO Chris Adkins had been picked to help run Alpha’s Running Right program, but Adkins left after members of Congress, the United Mineworkers of America and an independent investigative report on Upper Big Branch considered the appointment inappropriate given Massey’s safety record under Adkins.

More Criticism

The new developments reported by MSHA triggered a fresh round of Massey condemnations.

In referring to MSHA’s conclusions, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) wrote, “Massey engaged in coordinated efforts to intimidate workers and prevent them from blowing the whistle on the pervasive safety hazards that ultimately killed 29 miners in West Virginia.”

UMWA President Cecil Roberts was equally direct, saying, “MSHA’s revelation that there were two sets of books kept at the mine where information about safety issues were recorded demonstrates the utter contempt for mine safety and health laws that was pervasive throughout the entire management structure at Massey Energy.”

But there is nothing in MSHA’s findings that is critical of MSHA’s own regulatory oversight. That bothers Clay Mullins, a coal miner whose brother Rex died at Upper Big Branch.

“It’s MSHA’s job and the state’s job to enforce the law and make sure that Massey does their job,” Mullins says. “And all three failed at their job. If they had enforced the laws that they had, then we wouldn’t be sitting here talking because the accident would not have happened.”

In response to questions from reporters, Stricklin noted a separate Labor Department investigation is considering any possible regulatory failures at MSHA, which has been criticized in past internal-agency and disaster reports for failing at times to rigorously enforce mine safety law.

Coal miner Bobbie Pauley anticipated the MSHA findings with both excitement and dread. Pauley’s fiancĂ©, Boone Payne, died at Upper Big Branch.

“I kept thinking, ‘You’ve waited over a year. You wanted answers. Tonight [Tuesday], you’re going to get them,’” Pauley says. “But then another side of me said, ‘I don’t want to know because it brings it all back in your face.’”

There’s plenty of opportunity for more of that. MSHA expects to release a final written report as early as October. A federal grand jury has been considering criminal indictments. The state of West Virginia will have its own report, as will the UMWA.

But Pauley says she cries every day, anyway, about losing the man she thought she’d be with the rest of her life. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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