Safety chief details West Virginia coal mine's history of violations

By David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Massey Energy appeared to take a "catch me if you can" approach to safety at its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, racking up more of one kind of serious violation in 2009 than any other mine, a federal official said Tuesday.

Joseph A. Main, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), told Senate lawmakers that the agency issued 48 "withdrawal orders" at Upper Big Branch, more than at any other mine during that period. Withdrawal orders require miners to leave areas deemed unsafe.

According to Main, federal inspectors spent 1,854 hours at Upper Big Branch last year.

He said the agency's efforts were frustrated by Massey's tendency to appeal citations, which prevented the imposition of tougher rules applicable to companies deemed to have a "pattern of violations."

On Tuesday, at a hearing called after 29 miners were killed in an April 5 explosion at Upper Big Branch, Main asked the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for greater enforcement powers and tougher penalties for those who do not fix safety hazards.

At the same time, Main conceded that the agency can seek an injunction to halt work at a dangerous mine -- and acknowledged that it has never done so.

"Why?" asked Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the committee chairman.

"I can't speak for [past] administrations," Main said. "I can speak for us; we're going to start using it."

Testifying at the hearing, witnesses from the United Mine Workers of America accused Massey of being one of the worst exploiters of a broken bureaucracy designed to keep miners safe.

"This company is run like it's 1921," said Cecil Roberts, the union's president, referring to what he said was intimidation by Massey of miners who speak up about safety problems.

In a statement, Massey said the hearing had "degenerated into political grandstanding." The mine said its accident record is "33 percent superior to the average underground mine," and it denied that it appealed citations to game the system.

Also Tuesday, federal inspectors said they had conducted surprise checks at three other Massey underground mines in West Virginia during the past month. The inspections resulted in the withdrawal of miners and 23 citations for serious violations.

To ensure that conditions were unchanged before their inspections, MSHA officials took control of the company phone lines at two of the three mines to prevent employees from alerting colleagues working underground.

In a statement, Main said the inspectors' findings showed "a serious disregard for the safety and health of the miners who work at these operations."

Massey officials said they disagreed with some of the citations. The company noted, however, that it had discharged eight employees and disciplined others because of the conditions revealed during inspection.

"These disciplinary actions are in keeping with our culture of accountability and safety first," Massey said in a statement.

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