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Washington Independent

Former Miner Details Dangers of Massey Mines

Company Puts Profits Above the Well-Being of Workers at All of Its Mines, Long-Time Veteran Contends

Mike Lillis

Mourners held a vigil after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. (EPA/

Beckley, W.Va. - As lawmakers mull better ways to prevent mining
accidents following this month's deadly blast in Southern West
Virginia, one long-time veteran of the Appalachian mines has a

Break down these criminal enterprises like Massey Energy," said
Chuck Nelson, who worked for Massey in underground mines for most of
the 1990s. "That is the best possible solution."

Massey, the Virginia-based coal giant, is facing intense scrutiny
in the wake of the April 5 explosion at its Upper Big Branch Mine south
of Charleston, which killed 29 miners. Prior to the blast, federal
inspectors had cited the project for more than 120 safety violations
this year alone, including two citations issued the day of the
explosion. Dozens of other Massey mines in Appalachia have racked up
thousands of similar violations, leading critics on and off Capitol
Hill to accuse the company of putting profits above the well-being of
its workers - a charge vehemently denied by Massey officials.

Nelson, who left Massey in 2000, says that's simply the company's
business model. In an interview with TWI from his Raleigh County home,
the retired Nelson described a company culture - perpetuated by
higher-ups - that systemically disregarded safety measures in the name
of greater coal production. For example:

Mine operators are also required to dilute combustible coal dust
through a process known as rock dusting (which usually means dousing
walls with limestone dust). Rock dusting should occur throughout the
day, but at the Massey mines, Nelson said, rock dusting was commonly
done only at the end of the shift.

  • Mine ventilation systems utilize so-called line curtains to direct
    the flow of fresh air into underground work chambers in order to
    prevent highly combustible methane gas from accumulating. Massey,
    Nelson said, encouraged the miners to jerk down those curtains lest
    they get in the way of the heavy equipment and slow the process of
    harvesting coal.
  • Mine operators are also required to dilute combustible coal dust
    through a process known as rock dusting (which usually means dousing
    walls with limestone dust). Rock dusting should occur throughout the
    day, but at the Massey mines, Nelson said, rock dusting was commonly
    done only at the end of the shift.
  • As a protection against black lung disease, inspectors can ask
    miners to carry dust pumps gauging the levels of coal dust in a work
    chamber. It wasn't uncommon in Massey mines, Nelson claimed, to hang
    those pumps near ventilation fans instead, where they'd detect only the
    fresh air flowing in from above-ground.

When miners learned that government inspectors were headed into a
mine, Nelson added, they would race to hang curtains, fling the rock
dust and generally try to get the place in compliance with the safety
rules. When the inspectors left, "we were back to doing the same old
business as usual."

"This happened every day that I worked with Massey," said Nelson,
now a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "I worked
at six different Massey mines and every single one of ‘em operated the
same way."

Because almost all of Massey's mines are non-union, workers fear the
repercussions if they report safety issues, according to several
leaders of the United Mine Workers of America who spoke with TWI
Tuesday. Gary Young, a senior representative with the UMWA's District
29 office in Beckley, said that Massey workers in particular have the
threat of unemployment hovering over them. They know, Young said, "that
there are 300 people outside ready to take [their] spot."

Nelson - who worked in union-backed mines for nearly 20 years before
moving to Massey for roughly eight - echoed that sentiment. "I knew
that if I said something, I wouldn't have a job tomorrow," he said.
Nelson said he lost favor with the company a decade ago when he
complained about the damage being inflicted on his home by a
Massey-owned mountaintop removal project. (The outspoken activist has
since moved to another holler.)

Don Blankenship, Massey's hard-nosed CEO, has defended the company's
safety record, arguing that the number of violations it's racked up -
particularly at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where this month's tragedy
occurred - were comparable to other operations of similar size. Safety
violations, he said in the immediate wake of the blast, are "a normal part of the mining process."

More recently, Blankenship that the company's long record of safety
violations is irrelevant to the recent disaster. "When somebody says,
‘Did the violations have anything to do with the accident?' - they
should not," he told Charleston's Daily Mail. "Because every violation
is abated and agreed to by everyone before there is any further mining.
So you would not think that any violation of the past had any

The White House, however, disagrees, and last week President Obama announced
new steps for mining reform, including the immediate re-inspection of
all mines with a troubling safety record. Congress is jumping in as
well, with both the Senate and the House scheduled to hold hearings on
mining safety shortly.

Meanwhile, President Obama and Vice President Biden will attend a
memorial service in Beckley Sunday for the 29 miners killed this month.
Obama himself will deliver the eulogy. There are many in Raleigh County
who are hoping that, to prevent the next disaster, he'll offer more
than words.

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