The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) says Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 West Virginia coal miners were killed in an explosion April 5,
was a mine with a significant history of safety issues, a mine operated by a company with a history of violations, and a mine and a company that MSHA was watching closely.
In a preliminary report on the disaster to President Obama, MSHA also says its efforts to place Upper Big Branch into a special status that requires more frequent inspections and tougher sanctions was stymied by Massey’s gaming of the rules as well as
policies this administration inherited that make it relatively easy for operators like Massey to avoid pattern violations status.
The MSHA report on Upper Big Branch and federal records, not to mention the 49 miners killed at all Massey operations since 2000, lay out an air-tight indictment of Massey’s overall safety record. Yet the company issued a statement yesterday saying it was “regrettable” that Obama, “has been misinformed about our record.” No, the record’s quite clear.
At Upper Big Branch, all indications are the blast was caused by a combination of high levels of explosive methane and coal dust which is extremely combustible. From the first of the year until the blast, the Massey mine was cited 32 times for violations involving, methane, coal dust and other combustible materials. It was also cited for failure to develop and follow a ventilation plan. If proper procedures had been followed, would the explosion have been prevented? It’s impossible to say with certainty but as the MSHA report says:
When methane and coal dust levels are controlled, explosions from these sources can be prevented. Explosions in coal mines are preventable. Mine operators use methane drainage and adequate ventilation to minimize methane concentrations. Operators can add sufficient rock dust to counter the explosive potential of coal dust.
From 2009 through this year, MSHA issued 639 citations and orders at the Upper Big Branch mine and, the reports says the citations were not only higher than the national average but “they have also been more serious.”
Over 39 percent of citations issued at Upper Big Branch in 2009 were for “significant and substantial” (S&S) violations. In some prior years, the S&S rate at Upper Big Branch has been 10-12 percent higher than the national average.
In addition, the Massey mine’s rate for repeated serious violations was 19 times higher than the nation average, the report says.
In what is perhaps the most troubling statistic, in 2009, MSHA issued 48 withdrawal orders at the Upper Big Branch Mine for repeated significant and substantial violations that the mine operator either knew, or should have known, constituted a hazard. Massey failed to address these violations over and over again until a federal mine inspector ordered it done.
Because of Upper Big Branch’s long record of safety violations, MSHA inspectors wanted to place it into what is called “a pattern of violation” status that brings the mine under more intense scrutiny and gives MSHA broader power to stop mining operations and withdraw miners.
But the Bush administration, at the urging of the coal industry and with former coal industry executives running MSHA, changed the rules to make it harder to crack down on pattern violators.
One tactic used by mines with troubling safety records to avoid potential pattern of violation status is contesting large numbers of their significant and substantial citations. Because MSHA uses only final orders to establish a pattern of violations, and the average contested citation takes over 500 days to adjudicate due largely to a 16,000 case backlog at the independent Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC), contesting large numbers of significant and substantial violations enables operators with troubling safety records to avoid potential pattern of violation status.
In fact, the Upper Big Branch Mine contested the majority of its serious violation citations that form the basis of the pattern of violation status determination. In 2007 alone, the mine contested 97 percent of its significant and substantial violations.
MSHA recommended several ways to improve mine safety and put a stop to mine operators who consistently engage in dangerous violations of the law, including:
- Strengthening MSHA’s capacity to investigate, prevent, and punish dangerous wrongdoing.
- Enhancing miners’ ability to protect themselves; and
- Bringing cases to justice with greater speed and certainty.
The report is available on MSHA’s website here.
- Statement from US Labor Department’s MSHA Assistant Secretary Joseph A. Main on ruling in Tiller No. 1 Mine pattern of violations case
- Statement of US Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis on Upper Big Branch Mine and pattern of violation status
- Massey Mine Cited for 450+ Safety Violations Before Deadly Blast
- Obama Orders Mine Safety Crackdown, Six Massey Mines on Serial Violators List
- Methane, Coal Dust Violations Cited at Massey Mine Before Deadly Blast