Massey Energy Guilty: West Virginia Probe Finds Coal Giant Systemically Failed to Comply with Law

Democracy Now! Interview with J. Davitt McAteer
lead author of the “Upper Big Branch Report.”

Amy Goodman: Massey Energy, guilty. That’s the conclusion of an independent state probe in West Virginia that says the mining giant Massey Energy was responsible for the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 workers. In stark language, the report concludes, “The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking.”

The probe was overseen by Davitt McAteer, a former head of federal mine safety. It echoes preliminary findings by federal investigators earlier this year that Massey repeatedly violated federal rules on ventilation and minimizing coal dust to reduce the risk of explosion, and rejects Massey’s claim that a burst of gas from a hole in the mine floor was at fault.

The report also notes Massey’s strong political influence, which it uses, “to attempt to control West Virginia’s political system” and regulatory bodies.

To discuss the report, we’re joined by Davitt McAteer, the lead author of the Massey report. He’s is former assistant secretary of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, now vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

Massey Energy did not respond to Democracy Now!’s repeated requests for comment.

Davitt McAteer, welcome to Democracy Now!

J. Davitt McAteer: Thank you for having me.

Amy Goodman: Thank you for joining us from your home in West Virginia. Talk about the major findings in your report.

J. Davitt McAteer: The findings were threefold, mainly that the company operated in a way that disregarded the basic safety precautions needed to keep the mine safe, that the ventilation system was not maintained properly. The rock dust, that is used to keep an explosion from spreading, was not maintained and was not updated daily. And third is that the methane gas was not removed from the mine in an effective way, leading to, in fact, a perfect storm. When an ignition began on the long wall of the mine, it spread throughout the mine, kicked up the coal dust, and the coal dust then became a very violent explosion that killed the 29 miners.

Amy Goodman: Now, Massey’s statement—and we wish they had joined us on the show—but their statement on your report says, “We disagree with Mr. McAteer’s conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust. Again, we believe [that] the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas. Our experts feel confident [that] coal dust did not play an important role.” Your response?

J. Davitt McAteer: We looked very carefully at what Massey has suggested, that it was this inundation. There had been three previous inundations, in ’97, in 2003 and 2004. But we also looked at what would have happened had an inundation occurred. Their suggestion is a million cubic feet of natural gas flooded into the mine unexpectedly. If that had happened, the footprint of the explosion, what the explosion looked like afterwards, would have been much different than what the explosion looks like now. For example, the explosion’s force would have been extremely powerful at the source of the infusion, where [inaudible]

Amy Goodman: I’m sorry, we just missed that last part.

J. Davitt McAteer: In point of fact, the explosion’s footprint shows—the explosion would have been very powerful right at the point where the infusion occurs, right at the tailgate of the long wall. The explosion footprint, precisely—that is, the one that we found after the explosion—showed that the forces of the explosion were greater farther away from the source of the ignition, so that it suggests very strongly that coal dust is involved with this explosion and in fact is a major portion of this explosion.

Amy Goodman: And explain how the coal dust accumulates and how this could have been prevented.

J. Davitt McAteer: Coal dust is created as you mine coal. It’s simply the dust that’s—as you grind the coal and put it onto a conveyor belt, it’s the coal—it’s the coal that’s broken into fine particles, and it falls onto the ground. How it can be prevented from exploding is the addition of rock dust, which is essentially ground-up limestone that’s laid with the coal dust, and that limestone lowers the explosion rate that the coal dust can have, so that you can make it not explosive. The failure to have a rock-dusting system that was in operation at the time, the failure to keep rock dusting in place, was a basic, fundamental safety failure that—every representative of the industry knows. You have to do that to keep an explosion from spreading throughout the mine.

Amy Goodman: You say miners didn’t have air and that Massey didn’t care. Explain.

J. Davitt McAteer: When we interviewed some 220 miners after the ignition, after the explosion, as part of the investigation, repeatedly the miners said, “We don’t have enough air coming to us in the mine.” Now, remember, the mine is divided into three, four, five sections, so that miners in various sections would, from day to day, have problems with the ventilation, and it would be very hot and would be very difficult to work. The ventilation system was not kept up properly. The ventilation system was not maintained properly. Some of the courses of the air were not sent to the miners’ locations on a regular basis. And there were changes made, on an ad hoc basis, on a daily basis, by foremen in order to try to get air to those individuals. What this means is that the air is not in a steady, constant ventilation method and that the mine—sections of the mine can have methane buildup when in fact the air isn’t coursing through like it should.

In addition, over the Easter weekend that preceded this explosion, there was a problem with some of the pumps on the surface, and water built up in the back end of the mine. That water buildup will, in effect, negatively impact the ventilation system. It’ll indeed block the ventilation system, so that the ventilation system becomes less effective. Those two factors, we believe, were involved in the day of the explosion.

Amy Goodman: You report that most of the coal miners who were killed, the 29, who varied in age from 25 to 61 years old, had black lung disease. Explain what that is and the significance of this.

J. Davitt McAteer: Black lung disease is a disease that coal miners have suffered for centuries. And it is essentially the inhalation of submicron particles of dust that adhere to the lungs and create an inability of the lungs to exchange oxygen. It occurs in miners who are exposed to levels of coal dust that are above the standard level, 2.0 milligrams per cubic meter.

And in this instance, we found, in this group of miners, some 26 of the miners had some sign of black lung, and that is an astounding number, when you consider that as a general matter, in the population of the country as a whole, it’s three percent, and in the population in West Virginia, it’s roughly six-and-a-half or seven percent. We were shocked by this finding and shocked by the age of the miners who had it. These are quite young miners, and these are some miners who don’t have much experience underground. So it was disturbing to us, and it is disturbing to us, that we have this potential problem, and it’s something that we need to look at very carefully.

Amy Goodman: You also note Massey’s control of the political system in West Virginia, of the regulators. And you talk about Blankenship. But start with this level of control.

J. Davitt McAteer: Well, it’s not unlike in any state. When you have a large industry, that industry has some say so in functions of the state government. They have access to the political figures. They have access to the regulatory figures. If we were in Iowa, the agricultural industry would have the same access. In West Virginia, coal is the dominant industry, and it has access to this.

Mr. Blankenship utilizes access on a regular basis, and he did so quite publicly. And he’d utilize that to suggest that his policies and the policies of contesting every violation, for example, were good policies and policies which, in point of fact, that they wanted to follow. So they performed a very confrontational approach to the regulators, both on a federal and state level. And that meant that the inspectors were challenged when they were underground. They challenged the citations that were written. They spent more time challenging the citations than they did fixing the problems. But he made it a practice to do that.

Amy Goodman: Don Blankenship has stepped down. He received $2 million when he retired at the end of last year, expected to receive another $10 million in July, expected to stay on as a consultant. Other top officials are staying on, as well. What about their culpability?

J. Davitt McAteer: Well, the culpability on a criminal level is decided by the U.S. attorney, and they have an ongoing investigation. With regard to the citations and the violations of law, in the federal and state level for the mining law, that would be decisions for the Mine Safety and Health Administration and for the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training.

We don’t come to any conclusion whether violation A or violation B was suggested. What we do conclude is that there was a pattern, a systematic failure to comply with the law in the mines, in this mine, in the months and years proceeding, and that this company has had a practice of not complying with the law. And we point to Aracoma Alma, where there was a fire in 2006 in which two miners died, and to the period of time, for the ten years running up to it, in which Massey had one of the worst safety records in the country.

Amy Goodman: And what about the lack of methane detectors, the fact that there were methane detectors but they weren’t being used? And what that means, why they’re important?

J. Davitt McAteer: Methane detectors are provided to the foreman and to the supervisory personnel by the company. And their purpose is to detect methane and to suggest if there’s a buildup of explosive gas. The failure to turn them on, the failure from one individual to turn them on, to take samples, to take readings, suggests to us that the precautionary pre-shift examination, an examination before the shift, and examinations by supervisors on shift were not being taken in all instances. In addition to that, we think that there were others who did not utilize their precautionary sample takers, the methane detectors, on a regular basis.

But even when—as we found, even when the pre-shift examiner tried to signal that there was a problem with—as with, example, a lack of coal dust, they—in the months leading up to the explosion, there were 561 citations or notes in the records of these pre-shift examiners, asking for rock dust to be put down. In 65 instances, it was done, and that was all.

Amy Goodman: More than a year after the 29 men died at Massey, at Upper Big Branch Mine, there is strong evidence that Massey has not changed the manner in which it runs these mines. On April 29th, 2011, after receiving tips on its hotline, MSHA, the Mining Safety Health Administration, conducted an impact inspection and found 20 instances of aggravated misconduct at Massey subsidiary Inman Energy’s Randolph coal mine in Boone County, West Virginia. During the safety blitz, the agency issued 20 withdrawal notices, five citations. Eleven orders had to do with violations of the ventilation plan at the mine. The inspectors found the company was illegally operating two sets of mining equipment simultaneously and cutting, mining and loading coal from the same section. What is the significance of this, and how dangerous is this in the continuation of how Massey operates?

J. Davitt McAteer: The Randolph mine is just a few miles from the Upper Big Branch Mine. All of those miners and all of those supervisory people are well aware of what happened at the Upper Big Branch Mine. The fact that we continue to have problems is shocking, in that there has not been a message sent by the management of Massey Energy to its people to say it is absolutely critical that we put safety in the first position. And that failure to make a change seems to me to suggest that we have not learned a lesson that we have to learn, if we are to mine coal safely in this country. It was really disturbing for us working on the report to see the Randolph mine up the road have the same kinds of problems and similar serious problems to what preceded the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Amy Goodman: What do you want to happen to your report? Where should this go? And do you think that, based on what you found, which is clearly, in this 120-page report, gross negligence, there should be criminal prosecutions?

J. Davitt McAteer: That’s the decision of a U.S. attorney, and I believe they’re aggressively pursuing that.

The second aspect that we are interested in is to see that there be some legislation on a federal level and on a state level to address the shortcomings that we point out in the report, one of which, for example, is the fact that we don’t have responsibility in the boardroom for safety and health. We have responsibility in the boardroom for economics and for finance, but we don’t have responsibility in the board of this company or the other companies for safety and health, and that needs to change.

Secondly, we need to introduce new technologies into the mining system. We’re still scratching on pieces of paper problematic signs that occur underground. We don’t have, for example, black boxes on any of the mining equipment to provide us with information after a disaster happens as to what went on. And so, we need to make those changes.

Secondly, we need to make a change at the regulatory agency, and that change needs to be to strengthen the regulations dealing with coal dust, dealing with rock dust, and dealing with ventilation.

Third, the industry itself has to make the changes. The industry, the mining industry in this country, if they’re going to continue to operate, have to be operating in a safer manner. We know how to do it. We have done it, and companies do it day in and day out. But companies also disregard the mine safety laws. The industry itself has to police itself and get itself—get its house in order, so that we don’t have, in the 21st century, the death of 29 miners in one fell swoop.

—Democracy Now!, May 23. 2011