UBB miners feared losing jobs, panel told
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine was a "ticking time bomb" where workers feared for their lives but worried that complaints about growing safety problems would cost them their jobs, members of a congressional committee heard Monday.
Upper Big Branch workers and families of miners killed in the April 5 explosion at the Raleigh County mine described a culture that put production ahead of safety and where violations were corrected only after company guards warned that inspectors were on their way underground.
"When MSHA is not present, there is no thought of doing anything other than producing coal," said Gary Quarles, a coal miner who lost his son, Gary Wayne Quarles, in the Upper Big Branch Disaster.
Quarles was among the miners and family members who testified Monday during a field hearing held by the House Education and Labor Committee to hear from those most directly affected by the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
A 34-year mining veteran now employed by a nearby Massey mine, Quarles described a system in which the nonunion mining giant's superintendents and underground foremen are warned in advance of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections.
"When an MSHA inspector comes onto Massey property, the code words go out, 'We've got a man on the property,'" Quarles told lawmakers. "Those words are radioed from the guard gates and relayed to all working operations in the mine. When the word goes out, all effort is made to correct any deficiencies or direct the inspector's attention away from any deficiencies."
Steve Morgan, whose 21-year-old son Adam died at Upper Big Branch, said there were many safety deficiencies.
Morgan said his son told him at least weekly of dangerous levels of methane underground and that ventilation curtains meant to feed fresh air to the longwall mining machine's workers were regularly removed.
"Ventilation was so bad he was sent home early several times, including once about a week before the explosion, because they weren't getting enough air," Steve Morgan told lawmakers.
Morgan said his son told him highly explosive "float coal dust" in the mine was at times so thick that he couldn't see. In one instance, Morgan said, his son was told to hurry up and apply crushed limestone to keep the dust down because inspectors were on their way underground.
Also, Morgan said his son was frequently left to work alone despite being a "red hat," or apprentice miner, who is required to be accompanied by a more experienced worker.
"I told Adam to tell his boss that this practice was unsafe and he didn't want to do it, and when Adam told his boss, the boss told him if he was that scared, he needed to rethink his career," Steve Morgan testified.
Quarles said MSHA inspectors were little help to the miners, visiting the mine during day shifts and not during evening shifts or weekends, allowing violations during those periods to go uncorrected.
"MSHA inspections at Massey did little to protect miners," Quarles said. "We absolutely looked to MSHA for leadership, particularly on safety issues, but MSHA has let us down many times."
Twenty-nine miners died in the Upper Big Branch blast, which mine safety experts and investigators believe was triggered by an ignition of methane gas and made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust. Massey officials did not testify at Monday's hearing, but have said the company does not put profits or production ahead of worker safety.
At Monday's hearing, continuous miner operator Stanley Stewart described being on his way into the mine at about 3 p.m. on April 5 when the explosion occurred.
"We were getting ready to head to the section when I felt a breeze coming from inside the mine," Stewart said. "The intensity picked up quickly and I realized that something bad was happening so I left the mantrip [a vehicle that carries miners] and started to make my way toward the outside.
"Before I could get out the air velocity increased to what I felt was 'hurricane strength' and I felt my feet wanting to leave the ground," he said. "The air was full of dust and debris and I couldn't see."
Stewart told lawmakers there were plenty of red flags that should have warned of the disaster, including repeated problems with the mine ventilation system that were cited by MSHA inspectors and brought temporary closure orders.
"Mine management never fully addressed the air problem when it would be shut down by inspectors," he said. "They would fix it just good enough to get us to load coal again, but then it would be back to business as usual."
Stewart said he told his wife, Mindi, "If anything happens to me, get a lawyer and sue the blankety-blank out of them. That place is a ticking time bomb."
But he said miners knew better than to complain about safety problems.
"No one felt they could go to management and express their fears or the lack of air on our sections," Stewart said. "We knew that we'd be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us."
Last summer, Stewart said, Massey stripped Upper Big Branch workers of their vacations because the operation did not meet production goals.
Alice Peters said her son-in-law, section foreman Edward Dean Jones, had told her before he was killed in the explosion about at least seven instances where Massey supervisors told him that if he shut down production because of ventilation problems he would lose his job.
Peters said her grandson, Kyle, suffers from cystic fibrosis, and that the family could not afford to lose Jones' medical benefits and miner's salary.
"They knew about his son and that Dean needed to keep his job and make sure his son could get the medical care he needed," Peters said. "On more than one occasion I called the mine and told them there was an emergency regarding his son that he had to come home and handle in order to get him out of the mine, because I feared for his safety."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.