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Miller concerned about Alpha safety practices

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The ranking Democrat on a House committee that oversees workplace safety said Wednesday he's concerned Alpha Natural Resources may be continuing some of Massey Energy's dangerous practices.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., noted that Alpha has continued to employ numerous Massey officials who refused to cooperate with the investigation of the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Miller also noted that Alpha has decided to fight federal regulators over tough enforcement action at several mines it bought from Massey.

In a House floor speech, Miller focused on the findings of last week's United Mine Workers report on the disaster, outlining routine safety violations, intimidation of workers, and interference with government inspections by Massey.

"I have been personally assured that these corrupt practices won't reappear with the new owners," Miller said. "However, there are some troubling contradictions that merit a careful watch."

Miller noted that Congress has not passed his Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act to, among other things, increase criminal penalties and make it easier to hold corporate officials responsible for safety violations.

"It is clear the Massey Energy management actively disregarded their workers' health and safety," Miller said. "Unfortunately, the knowing violation of a mandatory health and safety standard is only a misdemeanor, no matter how many miners are killed.

"This kind of conduct needs to be made a felony, but efforts to increase sanctions have been stifled by the mining industry's lobby," Miller said. "Instead of being held accountable for decisions that caused 29 deaths, Massey Energy executives got a massive $195 million payout when they sold off their company."

Miller said, "If you wonder why people are talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the 99 percent in the mine had their lives put in danger every day.

"They went to work for Massey," Miller said. "And every day they questioned it, they were threatened with their job loss.

"But the 1 percent, the 1 percent walked away with $195 million for overseeing one of the most dangerous mining operations in the history of this country," Miller said. "What about the families of the breadwinners of the 99 percent? They lost their husband, they lost their father, they lost their brother."

Miller's speech followed last week's release of the UMW report on Upper Big Branch, but was also timed one day before Alpha is scheduled to release its first report on earnings for a full quarter since the Massey purchase.

Miller has written a series of letters to Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield, asking questions and raising concerns about Massey's safety practices and how Alpha planned to reform the Massey operations it acquired in June.

In a response dated Aug. 11, Crutchfield wrote that Alpha "can only assume" that former Massey officials who refused to answer investigators' questions about the mine disaster did so "upon advice of their respective counsel."

Crutchfield said that his company "strives not only to continually improve its own safety practices, but will continue to strive to also set the industry standard in safe operations and behaviors."

But Crutchfield also said Alpha opposes the sorts of tougher sanctions for mine safety violations and crimes that are included in Miller's legislation.

"Laws are already on the books that penalize the types of illegal activities you rightfully criticize," Crutchfield wrote. "Alpha strongly believes that the focus of any revisions to current mine safety statutes or regulations should be focused not on increasing penalties once mistake are made, but on proactively preventing those mistakes from occurring in the first place."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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