Safety violations led to 11 closure orders at Massey mine

Federal mine inspectors last week temporarily closed 11 sections of a Massey-owned West Virginia coal mine after discovering serious safety violations there, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced this week.

In surprise inspections conducted at the end of September, mine-safety officials found operators at Massey's Seng Creek Powellton mine were cutting further into the coal seam than was legally permissible.

MSHA inspectors also discovered line curtains — plastic sheets that funnel ventilated air to prevent coal dust and methane gas from accumulating — had been rolled up so they wouldn't impede heavy equipment and slow down the production of coal. 

In one section, MSHA said, "suspended coal dust was so thick it was difficult to determine the proximity of the massive continuous mining machine."

Joseph Main, who heads MSHA, said the findings "only reinforce the need for new legislation to halt these kinds of practices."

Democrats in both chambers of Congress are pushing legislation to bolster the protections for the nation's miners, but the mining industry opposes the changes, saying they would put burdensome new requirements on mining companies at the expense of jobs and the economy.

In that vein, Don Blankenship, Massey's pugnacious CEO, last month blamed stricter MSHA oversight since the UBB blast for lower-than-expected quarterly earnings. 

"Increasingly stringent enforcement actions by MSHA across our operations and throughout the Central Appalachian region have resulted in lost shifts and loss of productivity,” he said in a statement. 

Blankenship, who has also blamed MSHA for the UBB blast, has repeatedly said Massey takes safety seriously and can police itself to ensure miner protection.

In response to last week's findings at Seng Creek, however, the company is singing an entirely different tune. 

"This situation was very frustrating and totally unacceptable," Massey said in a statement. "We appreciate MSHA’s blitz for uncovering conduct that we did not uncover ourselves. We welcome any effort — whether by MSHA, the state or Massey — that uncovers such conduct."

Massey said the supervisor involved had been instructed differently but simply ignored the orders. He has since been fired, Massey said.

A number of former Massy miners have testified, however, that practices like yanking down the line curtains were standard in Massey mines.

"When we got to a section to mine coal, they’d tear down the ventilation curtain," former Massey miner Jeff Harris told lawmakers in April. "The air was so thick you could hardly see in front of you. When an MSHA inspector came to the section, we’d hang the curtain, but as soon as the inspector left, the curtain came down again."

The surprise inspections roughly coincided with the six-month anniversary of the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, another Massey-owned operation where 29 miners were killed in April. 

Main said the Seng Creek inspections are clear evidence Massey hasn't taken any lessons from the disaster. 

"Rather than learn from this tragedy, there are mine operators that continue the 'catch me if you can' tactics, ignoring basic mining laws, and placing their workers at great risk of injury, illness and mine explosions," Main said. "They know that MSHA cannot be at the mines all the time, and miners pay the ultimate price."