Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Coal Miners Catastrophe

A Coal Miners Catastrophe: Big Coal Big Lies

The worship of money is the will of God according to Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Company that owns and operates the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 29 miners were killed on April 5 in a mining explosion. Blankenship is a member of the US Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and a rabid, right-wing Republican. Blankenship calls public officials concerned about climate change "greeniacs", says “greeniacs are taking over the world,” and that Al Gore, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are “crazy”. He accuses his critics of communism and atheism and believes capitalism is the will of God.

Gov. Joe Manchin has ordered the immediate inspection of all underground coal mines in West Virginia. He also asked for the state's more than 200 underground coal mines to cease production to mourn the victims of the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years. The executive order tells state regulators to start checking mines that have repeatedly had combustion risks over the last year. Such risks or other health or safety violations will result in having them partially evacuated or closed.

In the past 18 months the Upper Big Branch mine was cited for over 600 safety violations, with 124 this year. Several citations were for the two chief causes of mine explosions, inadequate ventilation of explosive methane gas and illegal concentrations of coal, according to Federal records. They reveal that up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas enter the Upper Big Branch mine every 24 hours. The ventilation system circulates less than half the volume of air needed to keep levels of combustible coal dust and methane within a safe range.

Pat McGinley, a professor at West Virginia University law school and coal industry expert, said, "When a mine's ventilation system isn't working properly or there is an unacceptable accumulation of coal dust even for an hour, miners' lives are put at risk." It appears the giant explosion was caused by a buildup of methane gas, with high levels of coal dust. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) ordered the mine to temporarily cease operations at least 60 times in the last 16 months. The mine was cited for 458 violations in 2008 and 50 were "unwarrantable failures to comply."

An MSHA official said the mine had more than 11 times the national rate for the most serious type of safety violation. However MSHA has not cited the Upper Branch Mine for a "pattern of violations" under the Miners Act of 2006, which allows closing the mine.

The New York Times reported that six months after the passage of the Act, the safety agency announced that the Upper Big Branch mine and 19 others had heeded the warning of possible closure for violations and had all instituted plans to fix their problems. Consequently they had received fewer violations. Thus they all escaped the added oversight. However, after their violations decreased for that one year, they more than doubled the following year.

In Blankenship’s weird world: School children can inhale coal dust while playing at school because Massey Coal "already pays millions of dollars in taxes each year." Government regulation means "we all better learn to speak Chinese." It’s ok to pay $3 million to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court just ahead of a hearing of his appeal to overturn a large damage award for driving competitor Harman Mining Corporation into bankruptcy. It’s fine to hate unions and spend millions to keep them out of Massey’s workforce even if he gets sued and loses. Virtually all of the major accidents in the coal industry took place in non-union mines, and Massey is one of the worst companies for their safety record.

On the Rachel Maddow show, Jeff Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek, The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, said that virtually all the major accidents and disasters have taken place in non-union mines. He said, “Massey Energy is infamous not only for…violations both with underground and also surface mining, but…that they really were part and parcel of being aggressive about breaking up the unions in the 1980s and the 1990s.”

“In a union mine, you had union fire bosses who came in, who pointed out the violations. And it was a brotherhood to really make sure that those violations were corrected and you have a safer mine, because those were members of the union that were in there.” Now less than 20 percent of coal miners belong to a union.

In seven of the last 10 years, Massey’s nonfatal injury rate has been worse than the national average for similar operations.

Massey told employees that if they missed work to attend the funerals of fellow workers they would be fired. A Massey worker, who did not give his name because he is afraid of losing his job, said that his coworkers were outraged that they were not given time off to mourn their friends and brothers. He said it was all about Massey's profits. "Is a lump of coal that valuable to you that you can't even give miners a day off to mourn their friends?"

How about a few days in jail for Blankenship who committed criminal negligence that caused the deaths of 29 coal miners?


  1. Here is the essence of President Obama's comments on the mining disaster today:
    President Barack Obama says the pattern of management and oversight failures led to the mining disaster and called the company's safety record troubling. He instructed Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Chief Joe Main to immediately send more inspectors to check a number of mines the agency believes are dangerous to ensure against conditions that might cause another disaster. “We all understand that underground mining is by its very nature dangerous. But we know what can cause mine explosions and we know how to prevent them. "I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business,'' vowing to step up scrutiny of coal-mine safety standards. Obama said that mining regulations are riddled with loopholes that allow companies to continually put miners in harm's way. The president has demanded that MSHA “streamline the rules” for a pattern of violations orders and take steps to eliminate the backlog of appeals by mine operators.

  2. Coal miners are poor and poor people don't have a voice in the business or the political system that supports it. It is simply cheaper to deal with the after effects of a coal mining disaster that to put the money into prevention. We complain (in a distant and not too bothered fashion) about China and the way they treat their workers: low pay, miserable and dangerous conditions. And yet the conditions for our non-union miners are very similar. We like our energy cheap and plentiful - the human costs be damned. The government/regulators allows these dangerous practices by merely fining coal companies and not shutting them down for violations. Of course if our penalties for flagrant safety violations had some real teeth, FOX "News" would call is socialist and, sadly, most people would believe it.

  3. Tom,

    Can you provide a source for the allegation that Massey would fire miners who took off work to attend funerals? I wouldn't put it past Massey to do this, but such serious allegations need substantiation.

    Maybe I'm spoiled working in my union job for the US govt. (MSHA); but, for the miners part, can't they simply call in sick? Are they required to provide the purpose of ANY leave they take? The miners DO earn sick and vacation leave, don't they?

    Paul D.

  4. Thanks for asking Paul. They shouldn't have to call in sick.

    The information came from the World Socialist Website that I check out everyday and find to be very credible on their facts in their articles:

    The article in question was published on April 12, 2010 and was titled: "Families begin to bury 29 killed in West Virgina coal mine." by Andre Raman and Sam Donaldson. Here is the pertinent part:

    "The funeral of Jason Matthew Atkins, 25, was held on Saturday after a viewing on Friday evening. Laura Morris, his cousin, criticized Massey and government inspectors for not ensuring the miners’ safety. “I just can’t believe it,” she told WSWS Friday. “I think it should have been prevented. With as many times as they had been cited, they should have done something about it by now.”

    Massey Energy told employees that if they miss work to attend the funerals they would be fired, workers said. A Massey worker from another mine, who did not give his name because he is afraid of losing his job, said that his coworkers were outraged that they were not given time off to mourn their friends and brothers.

    The WSWS spoke to workers and relatives outside a local market. Chuck Smith, an unemployed miner with seven years work underground, said Massey’s decision to force miners to work during the funerals was a calculated move. “What would it look like if a bunch of people wearing Massey uniforms showed up to the funeral yelling ‘damn Massey?’”

    Smith said another factor was Massey’s profits. “Is a lump of coal that valuable to you that you can’t even give the miners a day off to mourn their friends?” he asked.

    Sherry, the wife of a coal miner, echoed these sentiments. “These are the miners’ brothers; they know them better than their own families,” she said, “and they can’t even attend their funerals.”

  5. I agree with you Tim O'Keefe.

    I really don't care if FOX News calls me a socialist, because I just might be a democratic socialist. Far out capitalists like Blankenship might legitimately be called fascists. They worship money and curse government when their corporations are set up by the government to limit their personal liability as they put profits over people. They are actually controlling the government with big money lobbyists like US Chamber of Commerce.

  6. I just think these coal miners knew when they went to work that coal mining is dangerous. I don't think the coal mining industry is at fault here.

  7. Thanks for writing, but tell me how could a real pirate be such a sold out company man? I reckon heartless capitalists like you and Blankenship are pirates who steal money from your victims by killing and maiming them. Shame on you pirate rothbard.

    Thanks again for your comment.


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