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Massey foremen cited for safety violations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the three years prior to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, three Massey Energy mine managers with ties to the operation were personally cited by state inspectors for allegedly faking safety examinations and ordering miners to work in unsafe conditions, according to state records obtained Monday.

Two of the foremen for Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. agreed to voluntary one-year suspensions of their state mine foremen's certification cards.

Massey general counsel Shane Harvey said the company punished both men. "We didn't approve of their actions," Harvey said Monday.

The third Massey supervisor, Jason Whitehead, then-vice president of Marfork Coal Co. at Massey's Horse Creek Eagle Mine, was cited for exposing workers to unsupported sections of the mine.

Whitehead later won a legal challenge and avoided a $200 fine.

Under West Virginia law, state inspectors can cite individual mine foremen for violations of state safety and health laws. The state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training licenses mine foremen, and can seek to suspend or revoke certifications for serious violations by foremen.

Massey's safety record has been under increasing scrutiny in the last five months, as investigators continue to probe the underground blast that killed 29 miners, the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years. Records being reviewed as part of that mostly closed-door investigation continue to periodically trickle out, and Massey has engaged in an aggressive public relations effort criticizing the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Two Massey foreman at Upper Big Branch, Lacy Cox Jr. and Brian Wiseman, were cited by state inspectors in incidents that were alleged to have occurred in June 2007 and October 2007.

Inspectors alleged that on June 27, 2007, Cox marked 10 underground mine date boards at Upper Big Branch to indicate that he had conducted a safety examination of a conveyor belt tunnel. But, a state inspector alleged, the times that Cox marked were "in advance of the existing time" an indication that "it was impossible for you to have made this examination during the times indicated on the date boards."

In August 2007, state mine safety director Ron Wooten sought to permanently revoke Cox's foreman's certificate. Five months later, in February 2008, Cox agreed to a one-year suspension to settle the case.

Harvey said that Cox was suspended for five days without pay and reassigned to work duties at Upper Big Branch that did not involve conducting safety examinations. Harvey said Massey did additional training on the issue for mine employees.

State inspectors cited similar allegations against Wiseman, alleging that in October 2007 they discovered date board entries that suggested Wiseman was not conducting proper pre-shift safety examinations. Inspectors also alleged specifically that an inspector caught him not examining the entire length of a conveyor belt tunnel as required by law.

Wooten's office also sought to permanently revoke Wiseman's foreman's license, but also agreed to a one-year suspension instead to resolve the case.

Harvey said Massey let Wiseman go.

In Whitehead's case, a state inspector cited him in August 2008 for an incident that was alleged to have occurred in Massey's Horse Creek Eagle Mine.

The inspector alleged that Whitehead directed five workers to go into an area to install a water discharge line.

"By your own statements, you directed these men along with yourself to work and travel past two rockfalls in this entry which were unsupported," the inspector report said.

State officials fined Whitehead $200, but Whitehead challenged the citation and the penalty assessment.

In an October 2009 ruling, the state Coal Mine Safety Board of Appeals ruled in Whitehead's favor. Board members concluded that "it is a judgment call as to whether [the area] was adequately supported" and that a federal inspector who viewed the area did not issue a citation to the company. Board members found that Whitehead "did not exercise reckless and willful disregard of mandatory health and safety standards," as state inspectors had alleged.

Later, Whitehead became Massey's director of underground improvement. In that role, he was at Upper Big Branch the day of the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners.  

Since the disaster, federal investigators have said they were taking a closer look at what Whitehead and another Massey official, Performance Coal President Chris Blanchard, were doing underground for several hours after the explosion.

Massey has said the two men risked their lives to save any survivors of the explosion and did nothing wrong.

In late August, Whitehead was promoted to Massey's vice president for underground operations.  

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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