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UMWA: UBB disaster was “industrial homicide”

date: 
October 25, 2011
For immediate release?: 
 

[CHARLESTON, W. VA.] The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) today released its report into the Apr. 5, 2010, disaster at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, placing responsibility for the blast and subsequent deaths of 29 miners directly on management at both the mine and corporate levels of the former Massey Energy company.

“There were many factors that led to this disaster,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “But there is only one source for all of them: A rogue corporation, acting without real regard for mine safety and health laws and regulations, that established a physical working environment that can only be described as a bomb waiting to go off.

“Federal and West Virginia mine safety and health laws are very clear: It was the responsibility of the mine’s operator, Performance Coal Company, and its parent company, Massey Energy, to operate the mine in a safe and healthy manner in compliance with laws and regulations. That did not happen at UBB,” Roberts said.

“It is unconscionable, in the 21st Century, for a mine to be operated in the manner that UBB was,” UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Daniel J. Kane said. “That it was allowed to be operated this way by the federal and state mine safety and health agencies is also unconscionable. Though not the perpetrators of the crimes we believe were committed at UBB, they failed in their responsibilities to be effective and thorough enforcers of the law.”

The UMWA’s report pointed to several factors that led to the disaster:

•    The UMWA agrees with all parties to this investigation (except Massey Energy) that sparks caused by bits from the longwall shearer striking sand rock on the working face ignited a small amount of methane that had migrated onto the face as a result of inadequate ventilation.

•    Massey made an illegal air-flow change just days before the explosion and there is ample evidence to demonstrate that the active areas of the mine were inadequately ventilated prior to the explosion.
•    The flame from the ignition traveled into the gob (waste area behind the longwall) and encountered an explosive atmosphere of methane gas, resulting in an explosion that traveled along the longwall.
•    When the explosion exited the longwall, it traveled in several directions underground.
•    The forces from the explosion picked up and suspended excessive amounts of float coal dust that, in violation of laws and regulations, had been allowed to accumulate throughout the mine. “This float coal dust played the most significant role in the disaster at UBB. It permitted the explosion to gain force and travel a great distance, causing vast destruction,” according to the report.
•    When the explosive forces and flames reached the deepest penetration of the mine, they reversed themselves, retreating in much the same path as when they entered each area. This event resulted in some of the most destructive forces released in the explosion.
•    In all, the flames and forces of the explosion traveled more than seven miles underground.

“It is not uncommon for methane ignitions to occur in the course of normal mining operations,” Roberts said. “In the five years prior to the UBB explosion, 270 such ignitions were reported to have occurred in the United States. Not one of them resulted in a fatality.”

“The fact is that ignitions can be controlled at mines that have adequate ventilation, proper rock-dusting, functioning water sprays, well-maintained machinery and proper overall mine maintenance,” the union’s report said. “In the case of UBB, none of these necessary preventive steps were taken by Massey Energy.  In its focus to increase production, the company turned a blind eye to the requirements that ensure a safe and healthy work environment for miners.”

The union’s report calls into question the actions of several Massey corporate executives and mine-level managers, including Don Blankenship, the company’s former CEO.

“Don Blankenship knew exactly what was going on at that mine,” Roberts said. “He got production reports several times a day. He saw the levels of safety citations and orders going up. He, along with many others in the corporate structure and certainly UBB mine management, had enough information to know that this was a dangerous mine from a safety standpoint. But instead of taking the needed steps to correct the problems, they just kept right on running coal.”

“Massey Energy must be held accountable for the death of each of the 29 miners,” the UMWA report says. “Theirs is not a guilt of omission but rather, based on the facts publicly available, the Union believes that Massey Energy and its management were on notice of and recklessly tolerated mining conditions that were so egregious that the resulting disaster constituted a massive slaughter in the nature of an industrial homicide.”

The report notes that, “’Industrial homicide’ is not a specific criminal act…. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the company's conduct interfered with the proper performance of mine health and safety laws and regulations to such an extreme extent that the Union believes that government would be able to prosecute company representatives under applicable criminal provisions for their roles in permitting the dangerous conditions in the UBB mine that killed 29 miners.”   

The UMWA’s report also discusses the lack of strong and consistent oversight from both the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), especially with respect to supervisory personnel at the MSHA District 4 office; and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, noting that this weakness extended into the rescue and recovery operation after the explosion.

“MSHA possesses the authority to take enforcement action necessary to force compliance with regulations and increase protection for miners,” the report says. “UBB was a mine crying out for the federal government to step in and shut it down. MSHA should have used all the tools at its disposal to do just that until the hazardous conditions were corrected.”

Copies of the report can be downloaded from the UMWA’s website at www.umwa.org.


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