As the investigation into the April 5 mine explosion that killed 29 UBB miners continues, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia ruled in MSHA’s favor in a recent challenge to the agency’s decision to conduct private interviews. On May 10, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the estates of two of the deceased miners asked U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger to stop MSHA from conducting private witness interviews and to direct the agency to conduct its accident investigation exclusively through public hearings. But on May 20, the court ruled that federal law does not authorize the lawsuit.

Also on May 20, 2010, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Health & Human Service subcommittee, which oversees spending on mine safety. The hearing, “Investing in Mine Safety: Preventing Another Disaster,” discussed among other items reducing the backlog of contested cases before the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. The panel heard testimony from Mary Lu Jordan, chairman, Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission; Cecil Roberts, president, UMWA; Don Blankenship, CEO, Massey Energy; John Howard, M.D., director, NIOSH; Joe Main, who heads MSHA; and Patricia Smith, Labor Solicitor.

In his first appearance before Congress since the UBB explosion, Blankenship explained Massey is committed to safety and recognized the hearing as a step in the process of determining what happened at Upper Big Branch as well improving miner safety across the United States. He also tried to place some of the blame on MSHA. “As we have said previously, prior to the accident MSHA effectively ordered us to change our ventilation plan by rejecting the plans we submitted,” Blankenship said. “Only by adopting a ventilation plan with changes we did not like, but that were effectively required by MSHA, were we able to proceed with mining operations at Upper Big Branch.”

His comments drew fire from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), who noted Massey’s record of safety violations. “This is a clear record of blatant disregard for the safety and welfare of Massey,” Byrd said. As for MSHA, Byrd said the agency had a lot of explaining to do. Most of the hearing focused on Massey’s practice of appealing violations, which is not much different than most major U.S. coal operators. MSHA said Massey escaped enforcement by contesting 78% of the $13.5 million in fines the agency assessed in 2009.

On May 25, U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) gave grieving family members a chance to speak publicly during a Congressional field hearing. Miller chairs the Education and Labor Committee and traveled to Beckley, W.Va., to hear firsthand from families who are looking for answers on the worst American mine tragedy in 40 years.

In addition to Miller, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin spoke and West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis were on hand along with other members of the West Virginia delegation, including Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, Congressman Alan Mollohan, and Senator Jay Rockefeller. Family members included Gary Quarles, father of Gary Wayne Quarles; Steve Morgan, father of Adam Morgan; Eddie Cook, uncle of Adam Morgan; Alice Peters, mother-in-law of Edward “Dean” Jones; Clay Mullins, brother of Rex Mullins; and Stanley “Goose” Stewart, former Upper Big Branch miner.

“While the cause of this tragedy remains under investigation, the hazards miners face while underground are not a mystery,” Miller said. “We know how coal dust can explode like gunpowder when ignited by methane. We understand the disastrous results when a mine owner operates on the margins of safety in order to put more coal on the belt. We know what happens when workers’ voices are silenced by fear of retaliation for speaking out on safety problems they see. And, we know the consequences for safety when an operator games the system in order to escape much tougher safety oversight. Miners die. That’s what happens.”

He did not mince words with local elected officials. “Despite these truths, I am sure many are skeptical that elected officials have the willingness to do anything about it,” Miller said. “There is frustration that as attention to this tragedy fades, mine operators will simply return to business as usual. That no one will be held accountable for the deaths of so many loved ones, and real safety reforms will fall by the wayside again. I share this concern. I’ve seen it happen before.”

The most damaging testimony came from surviving UBB miner Goose Stewart. A longwall miner with 34 years of experience, 15 years as a non-union miner at the UBB mine and 19 years as a union miner prior to that. He was on the first mantrip that made it out of the mine during the explosion which occurred at shift change. Almost all of the miners on the second mantrip perished underground.

“Many things were wrong at the mine such as low air constantly,” Stewart said. “The area of the mine where we were working was liberating a lot of methane. Mine management never fully addressed the air problem when it would be shut down by inspectors. They would fix it just good enough to get us to load coal again, but then it would be back to business
as usual.

“No one felt they could go to management and express their fears or the lack of air on our sections,” Stewart said. “We knew we’d be marked men and management would look for ways to fire us. Maybe not that day, or that week, but somewhere down the line, we’d disappear.” In his closing comments, Stewart explained that when he worked in a UMWA mine, “you did things right, the company tried to do things right as opposed to my last 15 years of employment, where we did some things right, but we were forced to do some things wrong.”

Gov. Manchin got the message. He ordered an inspection blitz and state mine inspectors issued 128 citations. Inspectors targeted 51 “problem” mines. OHMST said the remainder of the state’s 200 underground coal mines would be inspected during the first week of June.