According to the United Mine Workers of America ( UMWA), Massey Energy Company was guilty of “industrial homicide” for the workplace deaths of 29 miners in Raleigh County, WV at the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine Explosion on April 5, 2010. West Virginia does not recognize industrial homicide as a legal category, but labor organizations have used the term in the past to indicate a reckless disregard for the safety of its workers.
The UMWA was appointed by MSHA to represent the families’ interests in the investigation. UMWA President Cecil Roberts presented a report at a press conference in Charleston, WV on October 25, 2011, which concluded that Massey created conditions at Montcoal for a catastrophic work accident when it did not correct known safety violations, intimidated workers, and disregarded state and federal health and safety regulations.
Robert’s stated in his cover letter for the report, “There were many factors that led to this disaster, but there is one source for all of them: a rogue corporation, acting without real regard for mine safety and health law and regulations, that established a physical working environment that can only be described as a bomb waiting to go off.”
The UMWA concluded that the probable cause of the initial explosion was the longwall shearer striking rock and causing a spark in an area that had a buildup of methane gas. The situation was made worse by poor ventilation, massive coal dust, inadequate rock dusting, and water sprayers that did not work. An independent investigator appointed by then-Governor Joe Manchin delivered a report on the mine accident earlier this year which corroborates many of the UMWA findings. Massey maintains that the explosion was a natural disaster, caused by a sudden infusion of natural gas into the area.
Evidence also indicates that a ventilation curtain near the longwall could have directed airflow away from a methane monitor that would have shut the equipment down when methane reached dangerous levels. Another methane detector was found later near the source of the explosion, but it appeared to be fairly new, and in spite of the recent explosion, was not damaged and was not covered by soot or dust. There is some question as to when that detector was placed in the explosion area.
The UMWA report indicates that Massey valued production over workplace safety. The report states: “Clearly, workers at UBB were fearful, because of management intimidation, to report to anyone that the mine was not safe. The threat of reprisal, including job loss, was so real the employees did not feel they could report hazardous conditions at the mine.”
“Given the overall poor condition of the mine in general, it is not believable that management personnel did not know that these conditions posed a substantial and immediate hazard to the miners and could possibly escalate into a catastrophic event. Massey’s knowledge of the hazardous conditions is confirmed by the practice at the mine of keeping two sets of record books. One set was for Massey’s eyes only, that documented the actual conditions, and the other an official record which concealed the truth.”
UBB mine owners were sued two years before the explosion for violations of health, safety, and environment. Roberts stated that since the company did nothing to prevent the explosion, company executives should be held responsible for the conduct which caused the deaths.
The report states that MSHA also bears responsibility for this workplace accident. MSHA allowed use of a ventilation system that is not used in any other similarly-sized mine in the country. MSHA also should have been alarmed by the 105 citations and orders, issued to Massey during the fifteen months prior to the explosion, for not complying with the ventilation plan covering air reversals. Furthermore, an MSHA inspector reported that he was told by his superiors not to cite certain violations and to reduce the severity of others. Though MSHA was charged with providing oversight to mining operations, Massey Energy Company was ultimately responsible for maintaining a safe environment for its employees.
The goal of the UMWA is to protect coal miners and has recommended at least a dozen changes to current laws and regulations which include stronger penalties for poor ventilation and greater protection for future “whistleblowers” reporting safety problems. The UMWA report authors state, “It is our greatest hope that this is the last such report we will have to ever write.”