A report recently released by the United Mine Workers of America calls the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners a criminal act for which the mine’s owners and managers should be held accountable.
The mine at the time of the explosion was owned by Massey Energy, which has subsequently been bought by Alpha Natural Resources. Some senior managers with Massey including Baxter F. Phillips, who was Massey’s president at the time of the explosion, continue to work for Alpha.
“(Massey) recklessly tolerated (unsafe) mining conditions that were so egregious that the resulting disaster constituted a massive slaughter in the nature of an industrial homicide,” reads the report.
Miners at Upper Big Branch were not members of the UMWA, but after the explosion the surviving miners asked the union to represent them.
The report’s findings concur with an earlier report written by an independent investigative committee appointed by the governor of West Virginia. Both reports find baseless the company’s assertion that the explosion was caused by natural gas seeping through cracks in the mine floor.
Instead, the reports conclude that an inadequate and poorly maintained ventilation system and a lax effort to suppress coal dust by a maintenance process known as rock dusting caused an unsafe accumulation of the flammable dust in the mine that was subsequently ignited by a spark from a coal cutting machine.
In a media statement announcing the report, Cecil Roberts, president of UMWA, said that Massey acted “without real regard for mine safety and health laws and regulations” and that it “established a physical working environment that can only be described as a bomb waiting to go off.”
The union report says that the drive to increase coal production overrode concerns about mine safety. It cites the widow of Edward Dean Jones, a mine foreman killed in the explosion, who told National Public Radio that her husband tried to keep his crew out of the mine one time before the explosion occurred because he thought conditions were unsafe. He was told bluntly by mine management that he could either take his men inside or go home and never come back again.
The imperative to mine coal at any cost was emphasized by former Massey CEO Don Blakenship. The report cites a 2005 memo from Blakenship that instructs Massey deep mine managers to ignore requests for work that might divert labor away from production and just “run coal.”
When the memo was made public and miners and the public interpreted Blakenship’s memo as an instruction to ignore safety, he responded with a clarifying second memo that only confirmed people’s suspicion. The second memo says that safety is always the company’s number one priority but that safety projects should be undertaken “without taking members (workers) and equipment from the coal-producing sections that pay our bills.”
The report also says that Massey kept two sets of records about conditions in the mines. The official records were available for all to see, but the “production and maintenance” records, which more accurately described safety conditions in the mine, were for the eyes of select management personnel only.
“The dangerous conditions that contributed to the explosion existed at the mine on a daily basis,” reads the UMWA report. “They were permitted to exist by a corporate management at Massey that created a culture that demanded production at any cost and tolerated a callous disregard for the health and safety of miners.”
The report says that there is no official crime known as “industrial homicide” in the either state or federal statutes, but that corporate leaders that allowed the dangerous conditions to persist in order to drive up coal production and profit should nevertheless be held accountable for negligence that led to the death of 29 miners.
“The UMWA believes that had Massey Energy been in compliance with all the mandatory health and safety standards related to the conditions that contributed to the explosion of April 5, 2010, the explosion would not have occurred,” says the report.