On April 5 an explosion in Performance Coal Company's underground Upper Big Branch coal mine in Mountcoal, West Virginia killed 29 underground workers. This was the highest mining disaster casualty count since 1970 and follows employee deaths at the mine in 1998, 2001 and 2003.
The explosion is widely thought to be the result of accumulation of methane gas and coal dust in the underground mine. This mine normally releases about 1.5 million cubic feet daily. Conditions were so severe that rescue operations could not be started two days after the explosion. Nine bodies still had not been recovered seven days after the explosion.
This tragedy was not an accident. It was the predictable and foreseeable result of a long series of intentional violations of federal and state mine safety laws.
The mine's history of non-compliance speaks for itself. Since 2005, 1,342 citations have been issued to this mine. Fifty were issued for violations involving life and death failures. Many citations were for serious deficiencies. In the past three years, about 38 percent of the violations were classified as being "significant and substantial".
In 2009 the mine was cited for 515 violations, and fines totaling $911,802 had been proposed by MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. As of April 5, the mine had been cited for an additional 105 violations this year. Fifty-three citations were issued in March alone, for violations including failure to control coal dust, improperly planning to ventilate the mine, inadequate protection against roof collapses, failure to maintain escapeways and allowing the accumulation of combustible materials. A citation for inadequate maps of escape routes was issued earlier in the day of the explosion. Federal regulators have issued partial or total evacuation orders for this mine over 60 times in the past 15 months.
In January the mine was cited for having fresh-air systems flowing the wrong way near two escape routes. The result was discharge of air contaminated with methane and coal dust toward miners as they would attempt to flee. The mine foreman told investigators he had known of the problem three weeks earlier but had made no attempt to remedy the condition.
The Upper Big Branch mine, which has over 200 employees and recently produced coal at the rate of about 2.1 million tons per year, sold at an average price of about $91 per ton, is operated by Performance Coal Company, but it shares guilt for the tragedy.
Performance, which is headquartered in Mountcoal, is but one of nine primary subsidiaries of Massey Energy Company, the nation's sixth-largest coal producer. Massey operates 42 underground and 14 surface coal mines in three states through 9 primary subsidiaries, which in turn operate 98 junior subsidiary companies. Massey produces about 40 million tons of coal annually. For 2009 the company reported profits of $104.4 million on total revenues of $2.691 billion.
Massey's safety record is even worse. In 2009, Massey subsidiaries were cited for 2,074 safety violations. Since 2005, Massey companies have been cited for an astounding 38,997 safety violations.
In January 2006 a fire at the Aracoma mine in West Virginia killed two miners because the operator had removed key ventilation system controls, which allowed smoke to enter the primary escape tunnel. Rescue operations were hampered by inadequate fire extinguishers, fire hose couplings of the wrong size and a lack of water.
The operating company admitted to willfully violating mandatory safety standards, agreed to plead guilty to 10 criminal charges and to pay $4.2 million in criminal and civil fines. The operating company then pledged a "renewed focus on safety" and the parent company issued a statement that "Massey is a recognized leader in safety innovation and performance...".
Another Massey subsidiary was negligently responsible for the October 2000 break of a coal slurry impoundment for an abandoned mine that spilled about 306 million gallons of toxic sludge into creeks in Martin County, Kentucky. Fish and plants were killed for 36 miles downstream and water supply plants for several downstream towns were shut down for weeks. EPA called this spill the worst environmental disaster ever to occur in the southeastern United States. For this massive environmental destruction, which Massey claimed was "an act of God", Massey was fined $5,600.
The fact that so many subsidiaries of parent Massey Energy have accumulated almost 39,000 violations in the past five years points to a continuing course of deliberate conduct directed from a very high level. Most likely the level of CEO, namely Don Blankenship, America's highest-paid coal industry executive. He received $24 million in salary and stock in 2007 and $11.2 million in 2008.
In 2009 Blankenship received $900,000 in "performance pay". This was to be increased to $1.5 million this year. He also would have received 81,500 shares of stock this year.
His position as to employee and environmental safety was clearly expressed in a 2005 memo directing supervisors to "ignore any directives except to run coal, because coal pays the bills".
In plain words, in a state that has the nation's third-lowest per-capita income and the second lowest average wages, worker safety and even their lives were to be sacrificed on the alter of corporate profits.