- Jeff Biggers
journalist covering mining in the Appalachian region. He is author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.
Four people remain missing in a West Virginia coal mine two days after a huge explosion killed at least twenty-five miners in the worst mining disaster in the United States in more than a quarter-century. According to federal records, MSHA cited the Upper Big Branch mine for more than 1,300 safety violations from 2005 through Monday. Fifty citations came in the last month alone. We speak with Chuck Nelson, an underground coal miner for thirty years, and journalist Jeff Biggers. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Four miners remain missing in a West Virginia coal mine two days after a huge explosion killed at least twenty-five miners in the deadliest mining disaster in the United States in more than a quarter of a century. Prospects remain grim for the four missing miners, as rescue efforts have been suspended due to underground conditions at the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey Energy, which owns and operates the mine, said rescuers were forced to pull back from the search area because methane gas and smoke made it too hazardous to continue searching.
At a news conference Tuesday, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin described the force of the blast that ripped through the mine Monday afternoon.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: I can only say that when the rescuers that were in the mine and saw what they were able to see until they had to come out and the type of damage that was done, that it had to be a horrific explosion to cause that type of damage.
REPORTER: For instance?
GOV. JOE MANCHIN: For instance, rails that cars, buggies and heavy equipment, train rails that go back in, look like they’ve been twisted like a pretzel. That’s horrific. That’s an explosion that is just beyond proportion. And the heat the would come off of that explosion that caused that would be something.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, President Obama said the federal government was ready to assist in rescue operations. He made the comment at a gathering of religious leaders at the White House.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I spoke with Governor Manchin of West Virginia last night and told him that the federal government stands ready to offer whatever assistance is needed in this rescue effort. So I would ask for the faithful who have gathered here this morning, pray for the safe return of the missing, the men and women who’ve put their lives on the line to save them, and the souls of those who have been lost in this tragic accident. May they rest in peace, and may their families find comfort in the hard days ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Massey Energy has frequently been cited for safety violations at the mine. According to federal records, the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, cited the mine for more than 1,300 safety violations from 2005 through Monday for a total of $1.89 million in proposed fines. Fifty of those citations came in March alone. Many of those fifty citations were for poor ventilation of dust and methane, failure to maintain proper escape ways, and the accumulation of combustible materials. The Charleston Gazette reports that last year, more than ten percent of the enforcement actions taken by MSHA at the Upper Big Branch mine were for unwarrantable failure to follow safety rules, compared to about two percent at mines nationwide.
The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, has denied any wrongdoing and said that any suspicion the mine was improperly operated was unfounded. He made the comments in an interview with MetroNews Radio on Tuesday, where he responded to the large number of safety violations at the mine.
DON BLANKENSHIP: Violations are, you know, unfortunately, a normal part of the mining process. You know, you have inspections every day. And it’s hard to differentiate sometimes between, you know, head count or number counts on violations and, you know, the seriousness or type of it. But certainly, there are violations at every coal mine in America. And UBB was a mine that had violations.
I think the fact that MSHA and the state and our fire bosses and the best engineers that, you know, you can find were all in and around this mine and all believed it to be safe, in the circumstances it was in, speaks for itself. As far as any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated or illegally operated or anything like that, would be unfounded, based on all these people who were involved in the day-to-day operation of the mine.
HOPPY KERCHEVAL: Is there a natural paradox that exists when, on one hand, there’s an argument — you would argue that this is a safe mine, on the other hand, it obviously was not a safe mine. It couldn’t have been a safe mine if we had an explosion of this magnitude. Would you agree with that?
DON BLANKENSHIP: Yes. I mean, I think that any time you have an explosion, you obviously had a circumstance that is not supposed to exist. You know, not knowing yet what that circumstance was, I don’t know how avoidable it was or how it should have been detected. I don’t know that we’ll ever know. Certainly, that will be the focus of the investigation. But you can’t say that a mine that exploded is safe.
The challenge is a human challenge of what is a human capable of doing to make a mine safe and how good of execution can you get out of, you know, the people that are involved in every mine and what type of natural or unnatural occurrence that was unforeseen, you know, happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship being interviewed by Hoppy Kercheval of MetroNews Radio in West Virginia Tuesday.
Massey is the fourth largest coal company in the United States and the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia.
For more on the story, we’re joined by two people. Jeff Biggers, a journalist covering mining in the Appalachian region, he’s author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. He is joining us from Peoria, Illinois. His family goes back generations in the mines. And joining us on the phone from Raleigh County, West Virginia is Chuck Nelson. He worked as an underground miner in West Virginia for thirty years, eight of them with Massey Energy. He’s now a member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. He lives about twelve miles from the Upper Big Branch mine.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Jeff Biggers, let’s begin with you. Respond to Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey.
JEFF BIGGERS: To me, it’s really a twisted logic, Amy, to say that violations are just a regular occurrence that we should accept. I think what Blankenship is recognizing is that the coal industry, especially companies like Massey, have operated in a continual state of violation and denial, that we’ve had a century of regulated manslaughter. You know, over 104,000 Americans and immigrants have died in our American mines. And for that to happen in 2010, unnecessarily, is just wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Chuck Nelson right now, who has been an underground miner in West Virginia for thirty years, eight of them with Massey Energy. Chuck, your response to, well, the CEO of the company you worked for for years?
CHUCK NELSON: Well, you know, I listened to him say that some of these violations are not manmade, that they happen, and all mines have violations, which they do. But, you know, from the experience that I worked with Massey Energy is that, you know, they broke laws every day to increase production.
One of the major violations that happened was manmade, because what we would do, would go up and we would destroy our ventilation system, that that would be the first thing we’d do. And that was removing the line curtain, which directed the air current up to the working place, which diluted the methane from building up and carries it harmlessly out of the mines. So when, you know, you deliberately take down your ventilation system, you know, this is manmade stuff. These are not just violations that just happened.
And, I mean, there was many things that went on with — it was a violation to run two miners on sweep air, where you only have one return. And all the whole years I was with [inaudible] that, you know, they continuously run two miners. And I was sent to several different Massey mines, and every one of these mines operated in the same way.
AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Nelson, this is a non-union mine. What does that mean?
CHUCK NELSON: Well, it means that, you know, the worker, when he was told to do something, that you cannot file a grievance. You had to more or less do what you say — what they tell you to do, or else they’ll tell you, “Well, we have a man to replace you for the next day. You can just go home. You don’t need this job anymore.”
Whereas at a union mine, you have a union representation. You have a union fire boss. At a non-union mine, the fire boss is regulated by the company person, a salary person. So, you know, being from a union mine and having a union fire boss to go in and inspect the mines, he had a lot more — a lot more care about his job, because it’s his co-workers, it’s his brothers that he’s working with, side by side. And working in the mines, you become a family. I mean, these are really close-tied individuals. And, you know, it was — the difference between working at a union mine and a non-union mine is just like day and night.
AMY GOODMAN: I was watching the networks yesterday, and they were saying — they had a guest on who was saying it’s not a matter of unions, it’s just a matter of MSHA, you know, the Mining Safety and Health Administration.
CHUCK NELSON: Well, you know, I know that they had sent the inspectors at our mines before, like to do — to check dust compliance. And these were federal inspectors, which were supposed to be with the workers the entire shift and never leave them. And at the Massey mines, they would have ways to bring the inspectors outside, to say we have lunch for you or, you know, any way to stall them as much as possible, outside, away from the working miners as they work.
And we wore dust pumps, which measures the amount of dust that the miner is breathing. And as soon as the mine inspector would go towards the mantrip, I mean, they had like watchdogs that, once he got on that mantrip and started outside, that they would come back up and say, “Well, the inspector is on his way out.” And at that time, the section boss would come around and remove our dust pumps from us and take them over and hang them in fresh air, so they could get good dust readings so they could stay in compliance.
And so, you know, these are some of the type of the violations, the bad violations, that happens. And I’m not saying that’s what happened at this mine that exploded here two days ago, but, you know, it’s been a pattern the whole time I worked there that this is the way they operate.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you what it’s like to work in these mines, but we have to break. We’re going to come back to Chuck Nelson, worked in the mines for thirty years, eight of them at a Massey mine. Jeff Biggers with us also, just wrote Reckoning at Eagle Creek. His family has worked in the mines for years. He’s been a journalist covering the mines of Appalachia for years. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chuck Nelson, thirty years underground miner in West Virginia, and Jeff Biggers. He wrote Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.
Now, Massey Energy has been cited, well, what, more than a thousand times for safety violations. Jeff Biggers, what does that mean, not only about what is going on at the plant, but what does it mean about the power of MSHA, you know, the Mine Safety and Health Administration? Why don’t these get corrected? Where is the enforcement?
JEFF BIGGERS: I think that’s a great question, Amy. I think we really need to start talking about whether we have a breakdown in our regulatory system now. Have we created a system that allows companies to get slapped on the wrist and pay fines, even fines up to a million dollars, and then allows them to continue an accelerated process of production? Because ultimately, companies, like Massey in this situation, are always viewing profits and production over safety. You know, at the same time that they incurred 500 violations last year, they tripled coal production in this same mine where we had our disaster. And so, ultimately, this is a disaster in waiting.
And I think we have to really have some sort of reckoning now with our regulatory system and decide, for example, is it enough to only have four federal inspections per year? You know, that’s sort of a policy we’ve been stuck on since 1969. Perhaps we have to have more visits now, we have to have a tighter system. But more importantly, we need to start cracking down so these kind of violations can’t continue as a regular way of business.
AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Nelson, what is it like to work in these underground mines?
CHUCK NELSON: Well, the work in underground mines, you know, it’s our way of culture here in the southern part of West Virginia and all throughout Appalachia. And going in the mines, I mean, you have this relationship with your co-worker where, you know, one worker depends on the other worker as providing safety for his co-worker. Each person has a designated job to do, and each job has to be done right in order for the safety of the crew.
But working in the mines, I mean, you’re aware of the dangers. But there are signs that, you know, that it gives you about what’s happening. There’s methane monitors, where you can monitor the methane. When a buildup of methane happens, there are — they’re called “sniffers.” They’re on these pieces of equipment, like a continuous miner, that once you are in a pocket of methane and it reaches such a level, at the — right before the explosion level, it will kick the power off that piece of equipment. But, you know, you encounter —- I mean, things can go wrong with, you know, defects in the equipment and everything.
But, you know, there’s a lot of things that can be done that is not done, and especially working with non-union mines, is that, you know, they take a lot of shortcuts to increase production. And, you know, when I worked for Massey, we were required to load 400 foot of coal a day, and this is in a height six— to thirteen-foot high. And, you know, whether it took you ten hours to get it or whether it took you sixteen hours to get it, you know, that was the quota we had to meet each day. So, you know, it puts people — you know, like say you had a piece of equipment go down, and you knew you had to stay over to meet that quota. And, you know, people start getting in a hurry. People start taking shortcuts. And, you know, this is how people gets hurt, when they don’t do mining the way they’re supposed to do, the way it’s intended to do.
And a lot of the miners that I worked with was younger miners. I mean, I was the oldest guy over there. And this was a new mine, was just opening up. And a lot of guys were twenty, twenty-one years old. And when Massey hires these guys, they’ve only seen one side of it. They see the non-union side of it. They’ve never been in a union mines. And, you know, it was a bad thing to them. It was put in their heads by Massey that it was bad thing for an inspector to come to a mine, because there was going to cause more work for you.
And, you know, I talked to some of my co-workers, and I tried to get the point across: what would it be like if there wasn’t any mine inspectors at all? They could just have you doing everything, you know, and they lack in everything. I mean, they wouldn’t rock dust until the last minute or inspector showed up. The ventilation was always down until the inspector showed up or at the end of the shift.
But, you know, that’s the kind of things that gets people killed. Mining can be done — all mining is dangerous, but it can be done in a safe way. But you have to take the measures that — the way it was intended to be mined. That’s what these laws are on record for.
AMY GOODMAN: ABC News is reporting that large mining firms like Massey Energy avoid tough penalties by fighting two out of three fines, that they’re doing this increasingly, each challenge chewing up more time and resources, the result a clogging of the system. How, Chuck Nelson, did Massey Energy affect your family?
CHUCK NELSON: Well, they affected my family as far as, you know, spending time. You know, you was away from home a lot.
But in the community where I was raised up at, you know, I spent my entire life in Sylvester in Boone County, which is just right down the road from where the explosion happened, and Massey came in and put up a prep plant in the early ’80s. It was when Massey first came to Coal River. And this plant was called Elk Run Coal Company. And when — what the DEP did, or State Department Environmental Protection Agency, was to let them shoot this ridge off, which acted as a barrier between the community and the preparation plant. And when they did this, they put a big stockpile up on top of this ridge where they had blown off. And every time the wind would blow, it would carry the — pick the dust up off the stockpile and just literally cover the entire community with coal. I would come home at night, and there would be like a quarter-inch of coal dust on everything in my house. This is after I had spent twelve to fourteen hours each night working, you know, for Massey.
And so, when I — you know, my wife had asthma real bad. We were breathing dust that had been run through a prep plant, so it had been washed with all these chemicals. And the dust that we seen laying on our table wasn’t the dust that was hurting us; it was the fine particles that you can’t see is what’s going into your lungs. And so, we asked Massey to buy us out to where we could relocate, because we knew that the dust was going to continue. But they just kind of just brushed us off, like, “You know, you’re just — you know, we’re not going to fool with you.”
But I worked for Massey Energy, so, you know, I went around the community and started a petition, to where the community started getting involved and — because they was getting bombed by this dust, too. But when we had to go to the DEP hearings and the Surface Board hearings, you know, I had to sit across from Massey lawyers and argue for my community. And they ended up taking my job from me. And, you know, that’s the last I worked in the mines, because they blacklisted me, where I couldn’t get a job anywhere else. I was labeled as a troublemaker, because I tried to protect my family and my home and our community.
But since then, you know, the surface mines ordered that the stockpile be either moved or done away with or covered, and Massey chose to cover the stockpile with a dome, which is a large inflatable dome. And the community is still getting a lot of dust, because they still have like five or six open stockpiles on the property.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play some of the past comments of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. He’s the director of the US Chamber of Commerce. He’s strongly opposed any legislation around climate change. These are highlights from the speech Don Blankenship delivered at the Tug Valley Mining Institute in West Virginia in November of 2008.
DON BLANKENSHIP: I don’t believe climate change is real. I do believe that the Arctic is melting and the Antarctic is getting colder. I believe it’s a normal cycle. This is the first speech in twenty-two years at the Tug Valley Institute that I’ve made in November while it was snowing outside. So it’s not my greatest concern.
Let me be clear about it: Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re totally wrong. What they do is nonsense. And until we begin to call it what it is, people are going to misunderstand, because when we talk about it in more articulate, educated ways, the American public doesn’t get it. Pretty simple, they’re all crazy. I mean, it is absolutely crazy. How can anybody run for office and say they’re going to bankrupt the coal companies and be energy-independent and get elected? I mean, how do you do that? How do you stop us from mining coal while we look for Indiana bats and put up windmills to kill them all? I mean, if they go ahead with the windmills, we wouldn’t have a problem. You know, it is absolutely crazy.
It is a great — it is as great a pleasure to me to be criticized by the communists and the atheists of the Gazette as it is to be applauded by my best friends, because I know that they’re wrong. I mean, when you have an editor that’s, you know, an admitted atheist and when you have people who are clearly of the far-left communist persuasion, would you want them to speak highly of you? You know, it’s really crazy when you look at it — and I reuse that word over and over, because what we’ve got is people cowering away from being criticized by people that are our enemies. I mean, are we going — would we be upset if Osama bin Laden were to be critical of us? I don’t think so.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy. Jeff Biggers, if you can put this in a bigger context, who Don Blankenship is and the role of Massey Energy today, its power?
JEFF BIGGERS: You know, Amy, just listening to that, it’s quite tragic. And I think this accident, and as our hearts and prayers go out with the coal mining families — and my own grandfather barely survived an explosion in southern Illinois and lived with bits of coal in his face for the rest of his life — you know, here’s one of the highest-paid CEOs in the coal industry who mocks the welfare and the livelihood and the lives of coal miners who have carried the burden of our dirty energy policy for 200 years.
And here’s a man who I believe has a total disregard not only for his coal miners, but for the safeties of communities. You know, two years ago, of course, the Massey Energy Company had to plead guilty to a criminal charge of a fire in 2006 at the Aracoma mine that killed two people. And then, just recently, they’ve had to pay some of the largest civil fines ever for their reckless mountaintop removal operations.
You know, here’s a man who’s laughing at this situation, who now wants to propose blasting on Coal River Mountain, for example, within a football field of the largest coal slurry impoundment in the hemisphere, that if it would break, this earthen dam, as you showed many times on your program, you know, the whole communities of the people in the Coal River Valley, over a thousand people, would have less than four minutes to flee a seventy-foot tidal wave of toxic coal sludge.
You know, unfortunately, Amy, we’re in a situation where, nationwide, we’re not taking the staggering human and environmental and healthcare crisis of the coal industry seriously enough until we have these disasters. It’s almost as if a crisis is never a crisis until we have these tragic disasters. And it just shouldn’t be that way. We should be clamping down and making sure that people like Don Blankenship are truly regulated, if not put out of business.
AMY GOODMAN: Actually, you say it more strongly in the piece you wrote, “What Killed the Miners? Profits over Safety?” You say, “Over 104,000 Americans and immigrants have died in our coal mines. According to one inspector, many, if not a majority of those ‘accidents’ should not be considered mishaps, but acts of negligent homicide.” Do you think that Don Blankenship should be charged with negligent homicide?
JEFF BIGGERS: You know, I still am not sure we can comment on the details of this mine until we have the investigation to find out truly what happened. But I think it’s important now that we start to broach the issue of manslaughter, that if we have a company that willingly operates in a continual state of violations — and not simply toilet paper violations, we’re talking about fifty violations in that mine were called unwarrantable failure, meaning these are life-and-death situations of ventilation, for example, which leads to methane gas. And, of course, the methane gas buildup is nothing new. We’ve dealt with this for centuries. So if we have a company that willingly, openly, admittedly operates in this state of violence and in violation to risk the lives of coal miners, I think it’s very important we start to bring up the issue: is this a matter of regulated manslaughter? Do we really need to discuss it in these terms? You know, and I think, obviously, we have to wait for the investigation to come through, but I think we really need to have a serious discussion about some of the dirtiest aspects and the human lives that are lost through this kind of reckless coal mining.
AMY GOODMAN: Also interesting to note Don Blankenship’s power as CEO of Massey. He shelled out more than $3 million of his own money in ads to help defeat a West Virginia state Supreme Court justice, who had — he had expected the justice to rule against Massey in an appeal of a $50 million award for a small coal company owner who convinced a jury that Massey had driven his company into bankruptcy. The new judge cast the deciding vote against the $50 million award. The US Supreme Court later ruled that the new judge should have recused himself. And also as the director of the US Chamber of Commerce, Blankenship has helped buttress the Chamber’s tough position against any kind of climate change legislation, despite the fact that many other corporate members have supported that legislation. Quick comment, Jeff Biggers.
JEFF BIGGERS: Exactly. I think it really represents that we’re living in an era now still of an incredible dirty process of the coal industry, that they’ll go to whatever cost, being it buying off judges, paying off, you know, the lobbyists. They spent over $120 million, the coal industry has, in this last year just in lobby money alone, in terms of Washington, DC. And I think that’s what we’re faced with right now, is a real crisis in our energy policy and a real crisis of denial.
You know, I think one thing I really wanted to point out, Amy, is that, you know, three miners still die daily from black lung disease. You know, over a thousand coal miners every year. And that is still something we’re not even grappling with. And that’s, once again, the tip of the iceberg of this incredible human loss of lives that we’re having in the coal industry today.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Jeff Biggers has written the book Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. His family goes back generations in the mines. And Chuck Nelson, thirty years underground miner in West Virginia. Thank you both for being with us.