Accidents seem to happen to Massey Energy a lot

by zunguzungu

When nine miners were rescued from the Wangjialing mine in northern China, a couple days ago, it was called a miracle. And when twenty-five miners were killed in an explosion Monday at a Massey Energy coal mine in Raleigh County, W.Va, all sorts of people called it a “tragedy.” It is. But the only miracle is that this stuff doesn’t happen more often than it does. And talking about “tragedies” and “miracles” makes it seem like this all comes out of nowhere, as if these people live or die by the grace of God.

It doesn’t. We’re still learning what happened on Monday (Ken Ward, a fine WV journalist, blogs at Coal Tattoo and it’s the place to follow the story). It will probably be a while before we learn all the details of how Blankenship and Massey circumvented the laws and regulations protecting their employees in pursuit of profits.  But we’ve been here before. We know who Don Blankenship is.[1]

For example, the last big Massey disaster:

On January 19th, 2006, two coal miners died in a fire in a Massey Energy Mine in Logan County, WV. Their names were Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield. Their widows are currently suing Massey, alleging that “[t]he Massey Defendants’ corporate practices… were willful, wanton, and reckless towards federal and state safety laws, and towards human life and dignity.” They are also singling out Massey CEO Don Blankenship for “personally engendering a corporate attitude of indifference and hostility towards safety measures which stood in the way of profit.”

Ken Ward of the Charleston “by God” Gazette reported that:

“..a similar conveyor belt fire [occurred] at Aracoma less than a month before the fatal Jan. 19 blaze. …[And] a critical missing stopping had been intentionally removed two months before that, to make it easier to set up a new electrical installation underground.  …Aracoma was behind schedule on production and revenues, and the mine management was under increasing pressure – especially from Blankenship – to focus on moving more coal.”…Blankenship involved himself in ‘day to day decisions’ about how the Aracoma Mine would be run, including an October 2005 note in which Blankenship told mine managers to ignore anyone who tells them their job is to do anything except ‘run coal.’

Here’s that memo, from October 19, 2005, which is completely damning:

“If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (I.e. build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.”

Massey attorney‘s argued that:

‘There is no question there were mistakes, but there is also no question that those mistakes were not Don Blankenship’s…Mistakes were made, poor decisions were made. There’s no question that things could have been done better and in hindsight things could have been done differently.  Horrible accident. Terrible tragedy. Bad decisions. Mistakes made that led up to it, but deliberate intent – you will not find evidence of that.”

This, in my humble opinion, is a lot of bullshit whitewash. You can read the findings of a special investigation for the governor’s office of what happened here. And you can read the account given by the  lawyers for the two miners’ widows here. Or you can read my condensed version below. But the shorter version is this: so many things had to go wrong that calling this an “accident” — if you are in full possession of the facts — is insane. Massey has blood on its hands.

Here’s the chain of events:

  • At 5:05 pm, Bryan Cabell, the evening shift supervisor noted that a broken carriage in the long wall mother belt “was causing the belt to become misaligned and rub against the belt bearings and smoke.” Problems had been noticed earlier in the day, but no action had been taken.
  • As the flames grew, smoke began flowing into the #2 section, where Bragg and Hatfield were working. Had the (legally required) ventilation control safety barrier been installed, this would not have happened. It wasn’t, so it did.
  • At the source of the fire, the two fire extinguishers were insufficient to stop the blaze, and Bryan Cabell attempted to douse the fire with a fire hose, but the hose coupling did not match the fire tap outlet, making it unusable. When he tried to simply open the main water valve — “hoping to direct the water towards the fire” — no water came out of the fire tap outlet, since (as it later turned out) the main water valve was turned off, cutting off all water to the area. Additionally, every conveyer belt drive in the mine was equipped with a water sprinkler system, which did not activate. And no sprinkler system had been installed for the mother belt storage unit, the origin of this particular fire. Had any of these legally required mechanisms for fire safety been in place, the fire might have been stopped and those men might be alive. They weren’t, and they weren’t.
  • Once the fire was completely unstoppable, partial evacuation of the mine began. An inexperienced mine dispatcher ignored several carbon monoxide monitor alarms which should have alerted him to a serious problem and would have led to an earlier evacuation. In addition, if there had been a carbon monoxide alarm unit in #2 section, the miners who would later die would have known to evacuate much earlier. There wasn’t, so they didn’t.
  • At least five weeks earlier, permanent ventilation controls — that would have prevented smoke from flooding the escape routes — had been removed in order to expand mine operations, and had not been replaced. Had these ventilation controls been in place, the two miners would have survived; they weren’t, and they didn’t.
  • Inaccurate maps did not reflect that the primary escape route was no longer safe, so the miners in section #2 were ordered to take that primary escape route — which led them directly towards the main fire — and because it was filled with smoke because of the faulty ventilation system, they were forced to use their “Self Contained Self Rescuers,” which they had been poorly trained in using, such that many miners dropped or lost pieces of them in the smoke as they tried to put them on. Bragg and Hatfield became separated from the main group and were lost. The other miners escaped into the secondary escape route, and survived.
  • Inaccurate maps (again) and the problem with water supply delayed rescue teams in their efforts; they entered the mines at 11:37pm but water was not supplied until 10:45 the next morning, and they would not find the bodies of the dead miners until the following afternoon, forty hours after rescue efforts began.

Please, tell me that was an accident. Tell me that it was an “accident” that the same company had another “accident” on Monday. So unpredictable. So unexpected.

[1] Full disclosure: I’m from the region and my mother is the director of an environmental and social justice organization, so I’m biased by lots of exposure to the bad behavior of coal companies like Massey, and Massey in particular.