WASHINGTON – The United Mine Workers are now demanding criminal prosecution of 18 Massey Coal Company executives – including retired CEO Don Blankenship – for “industrial homicide” that led to the deaths of 29 miners in the April 2010 explosion at the firm’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

In a scathing 90-page report on the blast, drawing on its own investigations and expertise, the union said last week that Massey executives established a culture that put safety last and miners’ lives in danger.

Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts called the mine “a bomb waiting to go off” due to Massey’s policies. He added yhat the Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to use all enforcement powers to go after “a rogue corporation.”

Massey has since been sold. This year, a federal grand jury in West Virginia indicted Upper Big Branch Security Director Elbert Stover on charges of lying to federal agents and destroying documents relevant to the investigation. Stover was found guilty on Oct. 26. Roberts has said he hopes Stover, facing 25 years in jail, will start to “sing.”

MSHA’s current director, former Mine Workers safety and health officer Joe Main, agreed with the union’s main conclusion that Massey put safety last. “These findings underline the fact that MSHA can’t be in every mine every shift, and some operators take advantage of that,” he said.

Besides the prosecutions, the Mine Workers recommended other changes, including tougher penalties for mine safety violations, stronger whistleblower protections, and greater use of MSHA’s powers to shut mines that exhibit a “pattern of violations.”

Last year, the Mine Workers and House Labor Committee Democrats, citing the Upper Big Branch explosion, pushed legislation strengthening mine safety laws. But it failed on the House floor due to GOP opposition when Democrats tried to rush it through under a special procedure allowing no changes and requiring a two-thirds vote.

“The third investigation has concluded the deaths of 29 coal miners” at Upper Big Branch “were completely preventable,” said former House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., sponsor of the failed mine safety bill. He called the union’s findings “consistent with other reports on the blast,” and “the devastating consequences of allowing some coal companies to operate beyond the margins of safety.

“The question for Congress is whether we will merely make pronouncements about the regrettable loss of life or [whether we] will we finally act to fix the loopholes in the law exposed since this tragedy. We owe it to the memory of families of Upper Big Branch and all other miners to act before another tragedy hits.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.