US finding safety violations in Massey mines
One wrongful death lawsuit already filed
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal inspectors have found more than 60 serious safety violations at
Inspectors visited more than 30 underground Massey coal mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia after the April 5 blast, according to records from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The agency has tentatively blamed preventable accumulations of explosive methane gas and coal dust for the worst US coal mining disaster since 1970.
The miner’s widow accuses the company of a history of safety violations that amount to negligence in the first wrongful death lawsuit over the explosion, which she filed Thursday.
Investigators were reviewing records from the site of the blast and waiting for dangerous gases to be ventilated before going underground at the Upper Big Branch mine. It will probably be another week until investigators can safely go in, MSHA Administrator Kevin Stricklin said.
To tally violations at other Massey sites, the Associated Press checked inspection records for all of the company’s approximately 70 underground coal mines in the United States from April 5 through Thursday. Mines operated by other companies also were inspected during the same period.
Stricklin said his agency hasn’t been disproportionately targeting Massey since the blast, nor has it increased the pace of inspections.
“We’re just going about our regular business,’’ Stricklin said. “I didn’t give any instructions to go and look at Massey mines.’’
Still, Stricklin sharply criticized the company for violations found in the last 10 days.
The violations include conveyor belt problems at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in West Virginia, where a belt fire killed two men in 2006.
“I’m very disappointed,’’ Stricklin said. “You would think that personnel associated with Massey would be really more careful.’’
The company’s Solid Energy No. 1 mine in Kentucky was cited for allowing coal dust to pile up on three occasions since the explosion.
“That’s very troubling,’’ Stricklin said. “Pitiful.’’
Mines are required to keep methane well below explosive levels with sophisticated ventilation systems, and to control coal dust by keeping it from piling up and covering it with noncombustible material.
Stricklin has told district managers to look more closely at all mine ventilation systems and the buildup of methane, and to move rock dusting surveys to the front end of the quarterly inspection.
Stricklin said he was embarrassed the industry wasn’t able to prevent the Upper Big Branch tragedy.
“An explosion of this magnitude basically sends us back 40 years. All explosions are preventable,’’ he said.
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Marlene Griffith in Raleigh County Circuit Court. It also targets Performance Coal, the Massey subsidiary that operated the underground mine.
The lawsuit argues that Massey’s handling of working conditions at the mine, plus its history of safety violations, amounted to aggravated conduct that rises above the level of ordinary negligence.
Mark Moreland, a Charleston lawyer representing Griffith, said that William Griffith was concerned about safety in the mine and had avoided serious injury during a rock fall there a week before his death.
“He told his wife on more than one occasion that if anything happened to him in that mine, that she needed to get a lawyer,’’ Moreland said yesterday.
Massey did not immediately respond to requests for comment yesterday on the lawsuits or the violations.
The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training started its own safety sweep of the state’s nearly 200 underground mines yesterday. Administrator Terry Farley declined to say whether the agency is targeting Massey.