Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Mine blast: Coal Boss Don Blankenship got $33 million but ignored safety in West Virgina mine where 25 killed

My question: were these workers represented by a union? It seems not. This is exactly the kind of work that cries out for unionization.

Coal Boss Don Blankenship Cast as Cavalier About Worker Safety in Lawsuits

Investors Also Critical of Massey CEO's 'Extravagant' Pay, Perks
Apr. 8, 2010

As more details continue to surface about the checkered safety record of the Massey Energy coal mine where 25 workers perished Monday, the lavish lifestyle and allegedly cavalier attitude of the company's controversial chief executive, as described in lawsuits and corporate documents, are now coming under intensifying scrutiny.

Coal Boss Don Blankenship: If you take photos, "you're liable to get shot."

One miner who worked in Massey mines most of his 25-year career said working for CEO Don Blankenship was "like living under a hammer. It's all about the bottom line, we all know that." The miner, who would only agree to speak with an ABC News reporter if his name was not used, said Blankenship believes in "stretching the men to the limit … they want every ounce out of the men that they can get."

The public record describing Blankenship's bottom-line approach is long, much of it laid out in a series of investor lawsuits filed against Blankenship and his company, and in SEC documents submitted by a Wall Street investment house that made a failed bid to take control of Massey Energy four years ago. In these records, Blankenship was repeatedly criticized for both his approach to safety, and for what one investor called his "extravagant" package of pay and perks.

In just one year – 2005 -- Blankenship was paid $33.7 million in compensation, according to a 2008 lawsuit...

In Mine Safety, a Meek Watchdog
New York Times
April 10, 2010

The Mine Safety and Health Administration was created almost 35 years ago, after deadly explosions at a Kentucky mine, with a mission to conduct more inspections of the nation’s mines and enforce safety standards more strictly. It was strengthened four years ago, after more disasters.

But it remains fundamentally weak in several areas, and it does not always use the powers it has.

The agency can seek to close mines that it deems unsafe and to close repeat offenders, but it rarely does so. The fines it levies are relatively small, and many go uncollected for years. It lacks subpoena power, a basic investigatory tool. Its investigators are not technically law enforcement officers, like those at other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

And its criminal sanctions are weak, a result of compromises over the 1977 Mine Act that created the agency. Falsifying records is a felony, for example, while deliberate violations of safety standards that may lead to deaths are misdemeanors...

West Virginia disaster: Will Congress take on coal mining companies?

Mining companies have been slow to adopt new safety requirements. Critics say the West Virginia disaster shows that Congress needs to step in. The industry says it needs clearer guidance.
By Mark Guarino, Staff writer
Christian Science Monitor
April 7, 2010

The deaths of 25 coal miners in West Virginia Monday in what is considered the worst mining accident in a quarter century is raising questions about whether a congressional overhaul of mine safety four years ago went far enough.

The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act, passed in 2006 in response to a disaster in Sago, W.V., that killed 13 miners, was intended to improve miner safety by mandating the installation of preventive and emergency technologies.

But Massey Energy Company, the company that owns the Upper Big Branch South Mine in Whitesville, W.V., where Monday’s accident happened, has been leveled numerous fines for environmental and safety violations in recent years.

Moreover, only 14 percent of mines have complied with MINER Act requirements to install improved communications systems.

This suggests that the MINER Act is not thorough enough in leveling consequences for mining companies or for establishing a timeline for coming to compliance, say several experts. The result is that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) – the federal agency charged with monitoring coal companies and making them comply with safety standards – essentially has its hands tied.

“The record of [the Massey mine] is problematic, and it may be the [MINER Act] needs an additional amendment...

No signs of life heard in West Virginia mine
Jon Hurdle
Wed Apr 7, 2010

MONTCOAL, West Virginia (Reuters) - Drills broke through into a stricken West Virginia mine early on Wednesday but rescuers detected no sign of the four miners missing since an explosion killed 25 people in a major U.S. mine disaster.

The rescue teams banged on pipes at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, but heard no response from the men, Governor Joe Manchin told reporters.

Hopes were dimming that the men would be found alive after Monday's blast, the largest U.S. mine accident since 1984.

...Questions have been raised by experts and observers about Massey's safety record and the laws governing the mining industry. Mining has always been dangerous, but 2009 was the safest ever for U.S. miners, with 34 deaths, according to federal data, 18 fewer than 2008.

Massey's accident rate fell to an all-time low in 2009, the sixth consecutive year its safety record was stronger than the industry average, the company said on its website.

But Upper Big Branch Mine has had three fatalities since 1998 and has a worse-than-average injury rate over the last 10 years, according to federal records. Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said the mine has been repeatedly cited for safety violations.

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