By Mannix Porterfield
Less than six months after a deadly explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine, killing 29 workers, a federal agency found dangerous conditions inside another Massey Energy installation not far away.
Before the Mine Safety and Health Administration swooped down on the Seng Creek Powellton Coal Mine in Boone County in late September, inspectors commandeered the telephones so the team could get inside the mine before any warning could be sent to the underground bosses.
“When they arrived on this one mining section, they found the ventilation controls not in place, the kind of conditions that lead to explosions, or black lung,” Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, told The Register-Herald on the eve of the first anniversary of the UBB tragedy.
“They found the dust was so heavy in the air because of the lack of ventilation that the inspectors could hardly see the huge continuous mining machines when they arrived there.”
Many lessons in safety practices were learned at the expense of the UBB victims, and Main said his agency has methodically implemented them.
One teacher was the special congressional hearing in Beckley, where miners spoke of intimidation at the hands of supervisors for calling attention to unsafe mining practices. Other troublesome aspects pointed to shoddy ventilation methods.
“There were a number of issues, I think, that were raised that were of concern to about everyone who heard it, particularly my agency,” Main told The Register-Herald.
“We made some real adjustments about how we do business, based on those and the issues that have come up.”
MSHA’s investigation likely is to go on beyond the planned June 29 briefing for the public at the mine safety academy in Beckley.
Tentatively, the agency has blamed the explosion on a massive buildup of coal dust, touched off by the blast of a small pocket of methane gas. The likely ignition source hasn’t been identified.
“What we intend is not to blame but to identify all the evidence that was collected and report what that evidence is and what it means,” Main said, when asked if MSHA is pointing fingers at Massey, parent of Performance Coal, which operated the Upper Big Branch installation.
So far, MSHA has conducted seven family briefings, the most ever held during the course of a mine tragedy investigation.
“The evidence is what it is,” Main replied, when asked if the January media briefing painted Massey into a corner of guilt.
“We’ve outlined what we’ve found so far. There’s one thing that is a matter of fact here. Massey Energy was running that mine, was responsible for making sure that health and safety measures were in place to protect those miners. It’s their mine we’re finding these conditions at.”
Asked if Massey were detected to be out of compliance with federal standards, he said, “There’s some conditions that were very troubling that we found.”
A number of Massey officials refused to cooperate in the investigation by taking the Fifth Amendment and not providing certain information, Main said, and that included some high in the company hierarchy, even to the corporate level.
“You can say what you think that means,” the MSHA leader said.
“We’re proceeding with the investigation to collect all the evidence and information. Despite that, we’re going to have a good picture of what was going on at the mine.”
Almost immediately after UBB, the agency embarked on a “special impact inspection program” to target mines that posed especially troubling signs, requiring more than the standard enforcement.
First on that list were mines with a larger potential for explosions and catastrophe, prompting MSHA inspectors to closely examine ventilation, methane, coal dust, and high numbers of citations and orders.
Out of the chute in the accelerated program, MSHA looked at 57 mines, and to date has examined 228 of them, issuing more than 4,000 citations and some 300 orders, Main pointed out.
“And those special inspections have given us even more insight into how some in the mining industry are operating,” he said.
“We believe that there’s a number of mines that operate differently when MSHA is not there, meaning that they do not put into place measures that comply with the law as required. This is not to say that all mine operators do this, because we do not believe that’s the case. We believe that many mine operators throughout the country have sound health and safety programs in place and conduct inspections at the work place to find and fix hazards so miners are not harmed by them. We have some that just clearly don’t do that.”
Among the 57 mines inspected shortly after UBB, the agency forced closure of half a dozen over individual conditions not up to par with federal regulations. Besides the stepped-up inspections, MSHA has retooled its pattern of violations system written into the 1977 safety law that allows it to close a mine over risky conditions. Since the law was approved, no mine has been put on the so-called POV.
But MSHA has beefed up its criteria for getting off the POV and issued notices to 14 mines now caught up in that process, Main said.
“We believe that between now and June (next briefing) will give us time to sort through the evidence and information we’ve collected to provide information that will be worthwhile to the public,” Main said.
Main plans to be at Tuesday night’s memorial in Whitesville for the 29 victims and their families.
“I know of the grief and suffering that families are going through,” he said.
“I can never feel it. It’s something I just know. They’re the only ones that feel the deepest pain out of these tragedies. We owe it to them to find out everything we can about what went wrong. We owe it to them and all the miners in the country to apply those lessons so that no family ever has to go through what they’ve had to go through and to go through the unbearable pain that’s going to last a lifetime.”
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