Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Backgrounder by NPR on Massey Coal Mine Disaster: Repeated Safety Problems in the Past

Hardhat Thanks to Beth Thornburg (SMU) on the Civil Procedure Listserv for the heads up on this revealing story from NPR on the worst coal mine disaster in decades:

An NPR News Investigation shows that the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia is not the only Massey Energy mine with a litany of safety violations, citations and fines.

Twenty-nine miners died last week in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine. Federal mine safety records document repeated safety problems at that mine.  Now, NPR's analysis of federal records indicates a similar pattern at nine other Massey mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

NPR reviewed 2009 safety inspection records available from the Mine Safety and Health Administration for all 35 active underground coal mines owned by Massey Energy.

Four Massey mines had injury rates more than twice the national rate last year. The national rate is 4.03 injuries per 200,000 worker hours. Massey's Tiller No. 1 mine in Tazewell, Va., had the company's highest injury rate at 9.78. The other high-injury mines are Slip Ridge Cedar Grove (9.18) in Raleigh, W.Va., M 3 Energy Mining's No. 1 (8.86) in Pike County, Ky., and Solid Energy Mining's Mine No. 1 (8.49), which is also in Pike County. 

Together last year, the 10 Massey mines with above-average injury rates received 2,400 safety citations.

Challenging Citations, Delaying Fines

Massey's long list of citations has some wondering whether the federal mine safety inspection system works. 

"Part of the strategy by the mine operators [is], 'Well, we're going to contest everything,' " says Bruce Dial, a mine safety consultant who spent 24 years as a federal mine inspector and inspection trainer.
Dial is referring to the citations and fines leveled by federal inspectors. In the past four years, he says, in the wake of the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, inspections, citations and fines increased. Challenging the citations delays the payment of fines.

"It takes so long to get [citations] through the review commissions, they don't end up paying fines until it's three, four, five years down the road," he says.

In fact, 16,000 citation appeals are pending right now, and they're worth millions in fines. Massey Energy alone, according to NPR's analysis, has had more than $7.6 million in fines. That's over five years at those 10 high-injury mines. The company has paid just $2.3 million of that amount so far.

Massey did not respond to NPR's request for comment but said in a statement last week that its rate of violations (per day of inspection) at its Upper Big Branch mine is consistent with the national average.

That's not true, says Ellen Smith, owner of Mine Safety and Health News.

And in case you were not heart sick about this: "as recovery crews prepared Monday to remove the last of the bodies from the Upper Big Branch mine, S&P Equity Research issued a rosy financial review of the mine disaster's impact on Massey Energy's bottom line."

Wondering why civil procedure people are interested (except that they are tremendous group of good heart people)?  Beth explains:

For those interested in the Caperton case (campaign contribution/judicial recusal), Don Blankenship, the man responsible for the huge campaign contribution to the WV Supreme Court judicial candidate, is the owner of Massey Energy – the company that had a big case coming before the WV court as the contributions were made.



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I have seen no discussion of the fact that the mine was nonunion. Massey is strongly nonunion. I have read that on more than one occasion the UMW had cards from 70 percent of the workforce but Massey denied recognition and won the election. A good argument for EFCA.

Posted by: Alan Hyde | Apr 14, 2010 4:04:47 AM

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