Mine workers: Federal mine safety agency’s deficiencies helped lead to fatal disaster

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Deficiencies at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), revealed in a scathing report about its own performance in the months leading up to the April 2010 disaster at the Massey Coal Co. mine at Upper Big Branch, W. Va., helped lead to the fatal tragedy there, the Mine Workers say.

But Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts adds the agency was also victim of lack of funds and mis-directed priorities imposed by the GOP Bush government in the years before the blast, which killed 29 miners.

MSHA administrator Joe Main, a former Mine Workers safety and health official, released the report on March 7. It takes his own agency to task, and UMWA repeated the findings in its comments.

“UMWA always believed three key factors are necessary for a mine to be a safe workplace: A mine operator willing to follow mine safety laws, mine safety enforcement agencies willing to strictly and consistently enforce those laws, and a workforce empowered to speak out on its own behalf without fear of retribution. None of these elements were present at Upper Big Branch, with tragic results,” Roberts said.

“We already knew Massey Energy willfully operated that mine in an unsafe manner. We also knew the nonunion workforce feared for their jobs if they spoke up about unsafe conditions they observed. The report by MSHA of its own actions illustrates the many shortcomings of that agency with respect to enforcing the law at UBB.

“Required inspections were not completed. Logbooks where critical information was supposed to be recorded about conditions of the mine were not examined. Supervisory personnel did not follow up on clearly flagrant violations of the law. These and many other failures allowed Massey to continue to get away with violating the law and putting its employees in danger every single day. April 5, 2010 was one day too many.”

While MSHA’s inspectors at the mine were new and inexperienced, Roberts said that’s a nationwide problem at the agency, due to “years of neglect and indifference by the Bush administration.” He added: “That’s still no excuse” for not fixing violations.

Main agreed with the report’s findings and cited changes he’s already instituted there as a result of the Upper Big Branch blast. “We take the deficiencies and recommendations outlined in this internal review extremely seriously,” he said.

The key improvements include a new standard designed to cut the combustibility of coal dust, and “a strengthened potential pattern of violations program to hold mine operators more accountable for safety and health conditions,” he said.

Photo: Sheila Combs, president of the Upper Big Branch Mining Memorial Group, at a sign showing what the memorial will look like in Whitesville, W. Va. Work began Jan. 25 on the memorial for 29 miners killed in the disaster. Rick Barbero/ The Register-Herald/AP



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.