December 7, 2011

MSHA: Upper Big Branch Miner Deaths Were "Entirely Preventable"

"Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners' lives at risk"
Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health and chief of MSHA

A scathing report issued by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration yesterday put the blame for the coal mining disaster that claimed 29 lives on "a workplace culture that valued production over safety." The report characterized the coal mining disaster as "entirely preventable", one that could have been avoided if long-standing and well-known safety standards had been followed. The report documents flagrant safety violations, routine coverups of violations, and intimidation of workers to keep them from reporting safety hazards and violations.

Ken Ward, who has covered the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster with painstaking detail in The Charleston Gazette, reports:

"Outlining flagrant safety violations and a practice of trying to cover up major hazards, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited mine operator Performance Coal Co. with 369 violations -- including 12 that directly contributed to the disaster -- and levied more than $10.8 million in fines.
Both the fines and the settlement are by far the largest ever in a case over worker safety in the mining industry."

In addition, federal prosecutors announced a $200 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, the firm that bought Massey Energy. The settlement calls for $80 million to be directed to enhanced safety at all the company's underground mines, as well as a dedicated training center and a $48 million trust to fund mine safety research at academic institutions. The settlement also includes $46.5 million in restitution for the families of the disaster victims.

Ward states:

Key to the deal, though, is that -- unlike a previous deal with Massey following the Aracoma Mine fire -- the Justice Department is not agreeing to never bring charges against any individual executives, officers or employees of Massey or Performance. Goodwin said resolution of issues with Alpha allows prosecutors to focus their resources on potential cases against such individuals.

In addition to his newspaper reports, Ward covers related events at his Coal Tattoo blog. Of particular note is a post in which he talks more about the settlement and how U.S. Attorney's criminal probe will continue. He quotes one US attorney as saying, "If anything, certain aspects of our investigation are going into high gear."

All eyes will be on Alpha going forward. Their buyout occurred last June despite intense opposition, questions about events, and allegations of secret deals revolving around the $8.5 billion sale. Shortly after this deal, Alpha joined industry opposition to tougher safety rules.

The report was issued on the 104th anniversary of the worst mining disaster in U.S. history - the coal mining explosions at Monongah W.V. that claimed 362 lives. While mining safety has improved in the decades since, yesterday's report demonstrates there are many more improvements that could and must occur to protect workers.

Related prior posts
Massey Energy Mine Disaster: The Soul of a Bean Counter
Mining safety: not just for China
Cold comfort: Crandall Canyon survivors and workers comp
A bad way to make a living
The sad, quiet death of Bud Morris - father, husband, motorcycle aficionado
The feds and Phantom Miners
Sago mining disaster and workers comp: newly formed insurer to pay benefits
Sago mining deaths: a sorry way to begin the new year

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This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on December 7, 2011 9:11 AM.

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