Anatomy of a non-union coal mine

by zunguzungu

How Massey Coal gets around the safety regulations that are supposed to keep miners safe:

Mine operators are also required to dilute combustible coal dust through a process known as rock dusting (which usually means dousing walls with limestone dust). Rock dusting should occur throughout the day, but at the Massey mines, Nelson said, rock dusting was commonly done only at the end of the shift.

Mine ventilation systems utilize so-called line curtains to direct the flow of fresh air into underground work chambers in order to prevent highly combustible methane gas from accumulating. Massey, Nelson said, encouraged the miners to jerk down those curtains lest they get in the way of the heavy equipment and slow the process of harvesting coal.

Mine operators are also required to dilute combustible coal dust through a process known as rock dusting (which usually means dousing walls with limestone dust). Rock dusting should occur throughout the day, but at the Massey mines, Nelson said, rock dusting was commonly done only at the end of the shift.

As a protection against black lung disease, inspectors can ask miners to carry dust pumps gauging the levels of coal dust in a work chamber. It wasn’t uncommon in Massey mines, Nelson claimed, to hang those pumps near ventilation fans instead, where they’d detect only the fresh air flowing in from above-ground.

When miners learned that government inspectors were headed into a mine, Nelson added, they would race to hang curtains, fling the rock dust and generally try to get the place in compliance with the safety rules. When the inspectors left, “we were back to doing the same old business as usual…This happened every day that I worked with Massey,” said Nelson, now a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “I worked at six different Massey mines and every single one of ‘em operated the same way.”

Because almost all of Massey’s mines are non-union, workers fear the repercussions if they report safety issues, according to several leaders of the United Mine Workers of America who spoke with TWI Tuesday. Gary Young, a senior representative with the UMWA’s District 29 office in Beckley, said that Massey workers in particular have the threat of unemployment hovering over them. They know, Young said, “that there are 300 people outside ready to take [their] spot.”

Nelson – who worked in union-backed mines for nearly 20 years before moving to Massey for roughly eight – echoed that sentiment. “I knew that if I said something, I wouldn’t have a job tomorrow,” he said. Nelson said he lost favor with the company a decade ago when he complained about the damage being inflicted on his home by a Massey-owned mountaintop removal project. (The outspoken activist has since moved to another holler.)