By Jim Snyder - 04/27/10 11:08 PM EDT
A former Massey Energy Co. employee told a Senate panel Tuesday that he quit because he was “scared” the mines he worked in were unsafe.
“In the end, I quit my job with Massey because I couldn’t take the poor conditions in the mine,” Jeffrey Harris told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “I am here to tell you about some of the things I know from my time working at Massey mines, things [that] aren’t right and which shouldn’t be allowed to continue.”
An investigation by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is ongoing, but federal investigators and outside experts have focused on Massey’s history of safety violations at the mine.
Joe Main, head of MSHA, pledged at the hearing to step up enforcement of mine-safety laws, including increasing fines for violations. He also called on Congress to make it easier for federal regulators to shut down problem sites and increase criminal penalties for violations of mine-safety laws.
Harris said he worked as a roof bolter for six months in mines owned by Massey, including at the Upper Big Branch mine. He now works at the Harris Mine No. 1, operated by Patriot Coal Co.
In a halting West Virginia drawl, he described a culture at Massey where supervisors allegedly downplayed safety risks and sought to hide potential violations from federal inspectors.
For example, Harris said, supervisors used several gas monitors to check air levels and would only report the lowest figure. Curtains to improve the air quality were put up during an inspection but later removed, Harris said.
He added that workers who got hurt were encouraged not to file a report on their injury, to keep the number of lost-time accidents low.
“If an operator wants to do it, it’s pretty easy to cut corners on safety,” Harris told the panel.
He said most miners continued to work there without complaint because mine jobs were tough to come by and for fear of recrimination.
“If you complained, you’d be singled out and get fired,” he said.
Regulators suspect high methane levels might have played a role in the explosion.
Committee members on Tuesday again focused on a laundry list of alleged safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine in a 15-month period prior to the deadly accident.
The mine received more than 600 citations, many of which related to ventilation problems and excess levels of coal dust, which, like methane, is explosive.
Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said the mine had a “record of numerous and serious safety violations.”
At press time, Massey Energy released a statement claiming it “is disappointed that the Senate hearings [on Tuesday] degenerated into political grandstanding. Unfortunately, all the sound bites in the world will not improve the safety of a single miner in America.”
Massey’s stock dropped 2.25 points on Tuesday, falling to 41.36.
On Monday, Massey’s board members and CEO Don Blankenship defended the company’s safety record and said that air readings taken right before the explosion did not show dangerous levels of methane.
Massey officials said they did not know what caused the blast but had no indications of high methane levels prior to the accident, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The officials have also said that their safety record was better than the industry average and that supervisors had been suspended or fired at mines where violations occurred.
Much of the hearing on Tuesday focused on whether mine-safety laws need to be bolstered.
Congress updated the laws in 2006 after a deadly explosion at the Sago mine, which is also in West Virginia.
Since then, however, the number of appeals of safety citations has grown to a backlog of 16,000.
Main, of MSHA, said regulators need new powers to shut down mines they determine to be safety hazards.
But Bruce Watzman, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association, said MSHA enforcement powers are sufficient. He said inspectors now can require miners to withdraw from a mine if they find a serious safety hazard.
“The enforcement powers under the Mine Act need to be used when conditions warrant,” Watzman said in written testimony.
Some senators questioned if the agency was taking advantage of its existing power. For example, inspectors can seek “injunctive action” for the worst violators to shut down mine operations.
Main said MSHA had not sought a court injunction in the 30 years it has had the power to do so.
He added the Labor Department was asking a court to issue an injunction against a mine operator with a pattern of safety violations.
Regulators must show a “persistent hazard to miners,” Main said.
He suggested that bar was too high, though he pledged “more aggressive use of the tools in the Mine Act.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who is not on the committee but attended the hearing, said the federal investigation into what happened at Upper Big Branch mine could take between six and 10 months.
He asserted that Congress would likely move before the investigation is completed.
“I’m not sure legislation can wait that long. In fact, I’m quite sure that it can’t,” Rockefeller said.
Legislation should give MSHA subpoena power to boost its investigatory powers and operators should face “enhanced” criminal penalties for violating mine-safety laws, Rockefeller said.
Increasing the powers of government agencies in charge of worker safety is usually controversial and regularly attracts partisan battles in Congress.