WASHINGTON, D.C. | March 27, 2012
On April 5, 2010, the people of Montcoal, West Virginia suffered a tragic loss. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, workers completing their shift at the Upper Big Branch mine felt a strong blast of wind hit their backs. It was a chilling warning that a violent explosion was tearing through the mine, one that would kill 29 miners and severely injure two more. As a nation, we continue to mourn the men who died and keep their families in our thoughts and prayers.
Since that fateful day, the people of West Virginia have been searching for answers. How could such a catastrophic event take place? Could it have been prevented? What steps need to be taken to help ensure this kind of tragedy never happens again?
As part of the federal response to the explosion, three teams were assembled to examine the events of Upper Big Branch: an MSHA investigation team to determine the cause of the explosion, an internal review team to examine MSHA’s actions, and a team from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to conduct an independent assessment of MSHA’s internal review.
After examining more than a thousand pieces of evidence, MSHA released its accident report last December. The report documents three events that facilitated the worst mining disaster in 40 years. First, worn drill bits and faulty water control on the mining machine created a spark or ignition. Then, a build-up of methane gas combined with the ignition triggered an explosion. Finally, a massive accumulation of coal dust fueled a fire that quickly spread throughout the mine.
While this explains the physical cause of the disaster, its real genesis lies in Massey’s corporate culture that valued profit over safety. By engaging in the reckless disregard of important safety protections, Massey Energy bears the responsibility for the deaths of these miners. The investigation revealed numerous safety violations, including:
- Keeping two sets of books and routinely providing advance notice to miners that inspectors were onsite, all part of a campaign to conceal the true working conditions underground;
- Disabling multi-gas detectors that could have alerted miners to the accumulation of methane gas; and
- Failing to comply with rock dusting standards that would have contained the fire before it consumed the mine.
The list of violations goes on and on. Safety was clearly not a priority for Massey, and 29 miners and their families paid the price. Federal prosecutors are to be commended for their efforts to bring justice to those who engaged in criminal activity.
Mine operators have a legal and moral responsibility to protect their workers. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers Association – whom we will hear from shortly – once noted that 95 percent of mine operators are trying to do the right thing. Yet bad actors continue to jeopardize miners’ safety.
That is why we have the Mine Act and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. When workers are needlessly put in harm’s way, federal enforcement must require corrective action and hold the mine operator accountable. As we’ve learned in startling detail from internal review and independent assessment, regrettably this did not happen at Upper Big Branch. Instead, miners were forced to confront a fatal combination of reckless safety practices and enforcement failures.
On numerous occasions, inspectors identified safety violations yet didn’t require abatement of the hazards. Even more shocking are hazards that simply went unnoticed altogether. For example, in December 2009, MSHA approved a new plan to secure the roof of the mine. However, four subsequent inspections failed to cite Massey for violating the approved plan. This proved to be a critical enforcement error once a roof collapse altered the mine’s airflow and allowed for the buildup of methane gas.
Furthermore, it is difficult – almost impossible – to imagine enforcement personnel missing the inherent dangers of coal dust accumulating throughout the mine. Again, this enforcement error neglected a crucial safety concern that would later enhance the magnitude of this disaster.
We have also learned over the last two years that other enforcements tools were either poorly used or never implemented. Bipartisan reforms enacted in 2006 created a new category of flagrant violations, yet they were never imposed against Massey. Computer glitches allowed Massey to avoid tougher enforcement measures. And technical support audits, including one that outlined concerns with methane in the mine, were never transmitted to the mine operator.
Sadly, the list of enforcement lapses could go on as well. NIOSH states in its assessment that proper enforcement “would have lessened the chances of – and possibly could have prevented – the UBB explosion.”
There may be a number of reasons for these errors; however, no excuse can comfort those who lost a loved one. Some enforcement failures have plagued the agency for years, and deadly mistakes are always followed with a pledge to do better. Yet Upper Big Branch still happened. Tragedy strikes, promises are made, new laws are passed, and a broken enforcement regime goes on.
Administrator Main, I hope you convince this committee and the nation’s miners that this time it will be different; that this time we will learn from past mistakes and keep our promise to do better.
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