ANACORTES, Wash.—Families and co-workers of six oil workers killed in a refinery explosion here April 2 were mourning their dead when three days later another explosion, this one in a West Virginia coal mine killed 25 miners, a deadly toll of 31 energy workers in less than a week.
President Obama offered condolences during an Easter Monday prayer service to the families of the coal miners killed in an explosion at a Massey Energy-owned mine April 5.
United Mine Worker President Cecil Roberts said, “The hearts and prayers of all UMWA members are with the families of those lost today at Performance Coal Company’s Upper Big Branch mine. We are also praying for the safe rescue of those still missing and for the safety of the courageous mine rescue team members. They are putting their lives on the line, entering a highly dangerous mine to bring any survivors to safety.”
Indeed, explosive gases drove the rescue teams back when they tried to enter the West Virginia mine. Roberts noted that the Upper Big Branch Mine is non-union, yet the UMWA sent “highly trained and skilled UMWA personnel to the immediate vicinity of the mine and they stand ready to offer any assistance they can to the families and the rescuers at this terrible and anxious time.”
Massey employs 5,400 workers at 35 underground and 12 surface mines that produce 40 million tons of coal annually. Environmentalists have been arrested 14 times at Massey mines protesting mountaintop removal mining that is devastasting the beauty of southern Appalachia.
On Jan. 16, 2006, a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Alma # 1 mine in Logan County, W.Va., killed two miners. The widows filed a lawsuit when investigators found that fire hydrants in the mine were dry and the hose couplings did not match the water lines. The widow of Don Bragg, one of those killed, told the judge “Massey executives much farther up the line expected the Alma mine to emphasize production over the safety of the coal miners inside.”
The judge ordered Massey to pay $4.2 million in criminal and civil penalties, the largest such fine in coal mining history.
In Washington State, the United Steelworkers of America rushed its Emergency Response Team to Anacortes to console the families of the dead and assist the families of the severely burned workers in the refinery explosion. The union also sent Kim Nibarger, the union’s top health and safety exert, to join in the investigation of the disaster. Niberger is a former refinery worker who was employed at another refinery in Anacortes. The refinery is owned by Tesoro, a corporation with “a history of serious health and safety violations,” the union charged in a statement.
The Washington State Department of Labor fined Tesoro $85,700 a year ago for 17 life or safety threatening violations. Inspectors found 150 deficiencies in Tesoro’s safe work practices.
“All of us are mourning the death of these six workers,” said USWA spokesperson Lynne Baker. “All of those who died were members of the Steelworkers or had been members for many years. It happened just before Easter weekend when these workers would have been at home with their children having Easter egg hunts.” Two of the workers killed were women and several of the victims had young children.
The Steelworkers, she added, “plan to get to the bottom of what caused this explosion. We’re looking for the root cause that is not always apparent on the surface.” She said the USWA negotiated in its last contract with the oil refinery industry a $500,000 benefit for the survivors of any worker killed on the job.
Photo: Charred towers and a burned out work areas (lower center) at Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes, Wash., where fire and explosion killed six workers at the plant. Ted S. Warren/AP