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."