Massey Energy case makes clear: miners need more protections – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

In the 1890’s in America, mine workers faced harsh working conditions. There were few safety mechanisms on machines, pay commonly amounted to less than one dollar for a 12 to 14-hour workday, and mine owners commonly paid their employees in scrip, company-printed money, only usable at company-owned stores, where prices were significantly higher. And especially important to NCL’s history, many mine workers were children, with mine owners commonly hiring boys as young as ten years of age to work in the mines.

Thanks to decades of battles to get union representation by the United Mine Workers union and its many hard-fought battles, conditions have improved in the mines and mineworkers are well paid. But the lives of mineworkers are still too cheap.

Last week, federal investigators looking into the mine explosion in April of last year in West Virginia found that Massey Energy, the owner of the mine where 29 men were killed in an explosion, kept accounts of hazardous conditions out of official record books where inspectors would see them. For example, one internal report from March 1, 2010, shortly before the accident, noted a problem with water sprayers, while the official report stated flatly “none observed” in the column for hazardous conditions.

After the mine disaster, a lot negative information came to light about Don Blankenship, owner of Massey Mines – including how he undervalued the safety of miners, was obsessed with output, checking on mine production every several hours. Now we learn that Massey Mines kept a set of internal books where safety hazards were recorded, out of sight of state inspectors, and off the official books that the law required them to keep.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the team of federal investigators, who spent a year sifting through more than 84,000 pages of documents, interviewing 266 people and examining evidence at the Upper Big Branch mine, where the explosion occurred.

Kevin Stricklin of MSHA, the federal agency responsible for mine safety, at a press conference this week, gave a stinging indictment of Massey practices, saying the federal investigation by more than 100 people had been able to rule out the company’s assertion that the explosion on April 5, 2010, happened because of an event beyond its control: a huge inundation of gas.

His findings matched those of the earlier report, conducted by a former federal mine safety chief which said that coal dust had been allowed to accumulate, spreading what had been a small ignition of methane through the mine and creating the deadliest mine blast in 40 years. Stricklin said this wasn’t simply a theory, “This is our conclusion.”

Falsifying records is a felony under federal mining laws. Though two people have been indicted in the mine explosion, Massey managers, including the former chief executive, Don Blankenship, have not been charged. 18 Massey executives have refused to be interviewed for the federal investigation, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights. Stricklin’s report found that Massey managers also pressured workers to omit dangerous conditions from the official books, Mr. Stricklin said that workers who tried to report risks were intimidated.

What can we do in the future to prevent negligent anti-union mine owners like Don Blankenship from exposing coal miners – who work under very dangerous conditions in the best of times – from continuing to operate? After all, the negligence killed 29 men working in the mine. Federal criminal indictments might help – and once these findings make their way to the US Attorney’s office – prosecutors should press charges against any and all officials whose actions put coal miners at risk.