Federal indictment: Deadly mine explosion was caused by CEO putting coal production ahead of safety

An indictment by a federal grand jury in Charleston, West Virginia alleges that former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship pressured mine managers to sacrifice worker safety for the sake of higher coal production and higher company revenue.

According to the indictment, safety violations at the mine caused the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia.

“(Blankenship) fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations in order to produce more coal, avoid the cost of following safety laws, and make more money,” reads the indictment.

The indictment charges Blankenship with conspiracy to violate US mine safety laws, conspiracy to commit fraud, and making false statements to officials investigating the cause of the explosion.

While Blankenship was CEO of Massey, the Upper Big Branch mine group was the company’s top money earner.

It produced a type of coal used in the production of steel that sold for a higher price than coal produced for energy generation.

In 2009, the year before the explosion took place, UBB group mines generated $331 million in revenue, or 14 percent of Massey’s $2.3 billion total revenues for the year. That amount was more than the revenue produced by any other Massey mines.

UBB was on track to produce even more in 2010 before the explosion occurred.

But the mine’s vigorous coal production came at a cost of safety for the miners whose work made Blankenship and Massey executives rich.

The indictment cites the mine’s poor ventilation system as a major cause of the explosion.

According to the indictment, “Blankenship and Massey routinely violated mandatory ventilation safety requirements.”

Proper mine ventilation prevents the build up rock dust, methane gas, and other potential hazards.

But between 2008 and 2010, UBB was cited 283 times for violating federal mine safety laws on ventilation.

On June 4, 2009, federal mine inspectors found that the airflow in one area of UBB was 417 cubic feet per minute. To be safe, the airflow rate should have been at least 9,000 cubic feet per minute.

The indictment lists other instance in 2009 when the airflow rate in sections of UBB was half the legal minimum required for safety purposes.

Because the mine was so poorly ventilated, high levels of rock dust and methane gas accumulated.

The indictment says that in addition to poor ventilation, the company’s mining machines were poorly maintained.

This machinery was supposed to be equipped with water sprays to suppress sparks as the machinery cuts coal away from earth.

But according to the indictment, mine safety inspectors on several occasions found the machinery operating with defective water sprays.

The deadly explosion occurred when a spark from mining machinery ignited excessive amounts of rock dust and methane gas in the air.

An investigation of the explosion found that the machinery that generated the spark that caused the explosion had at least seven inoperable or malfunctioning water sprays.

The indictment says that Blankenship received production updates from UBB every 30 minutes. When production slacked off because maintenance and repairs were needed, Blankenship often pressured mine managers to restore production even if it meant cutting corners on safety.

In one instance, according to the indictment, Blankenship sent a note to UBB’s top executive telling him “to run coal” and not worry about the ventilation safety problems in sections 1 and 2 (of UBB).

The indictment says that Blankenship, who reviewed all staffing and hiring decisions at UBB, was also personally responsible for the decision at the mine to devote as few miners as possible to safety construction and repair.

For example, under Blankenship’s orders there was “an insufficient number of coal miners in jobs focused on construction and maintenance of ventilation control structures  and devices, and the imposition and aggressive enforcement of coal production quotas (by Blankenship) . . . did not allow time to properly maintain ventilation control structures and devices.”

The indictment also suggests that Blankenship calculated the trade off between mine safety fines and lost production resulting from keeping the mine safe.

Blankenship had UBB management provide him with reports on all safety violations uncovered by mine inspectors and the amount of the fines that resulted from those violations.

Finally, the indictment notes that Blankenship ordered UBB management to reduce labor costs from $18 a ton to $14 a ton. That could only be done, says the indictment, by reducing the number of miners whose jobs were devoted safety.

 

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