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Mine Workers Union and Families Sue to Open Federal Probe into Deadly Massey Coal Mine Explosion

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Just a few weeks before the April 20th explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf, twenty-nine coal miners died after an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Although the Mine Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation into the disaster, unlike the open federal investigation into the BP oil spill, the probe into Massey is taking place entirely behind closed doors. The United Mine Workers of America and families of victims killed in the West Virginia coal mine explosion recently filed suit in federal court to open up the federal investigation. We speak to journalist Jeff Biggers. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 26, 2010As Obama Pushes “Clean Coal,” Jeff Biggers Tracks History of Destructive Mining in “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s move from worker safety from the spill to West Virginia.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we go now to another environmental disaster and human tragedy that took place just a few weeks before the explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf. On April 5th, twenty-nine coal miners died after an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Although the Mine Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation into the disaster, unlike the open federal investigation into the BP oil spill, the probe into Massey is taking place entirely behind closed doors. In the case of the Gulf oil spill, officials from BP, Transocean and Halliburton have testified in public, their interviews broadcast live on the internet. But interviews in the Massey probe have been conducted in private, and transcripts are not expected to be released for months.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Mine Workers of America and families of victims killed in the West Virginia coal mine explosion recently filed suit in federal court to open up the federal investigation.

For more on this comparison between the two major disasters, we’re joined here in New York by Jeff Biggers. He covers mining issues in Appalachia. He’s the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, comes from generations of coal-mining families.

Talk about the latest with Massey. It has been, to say the least — to think that Blankenship, the CEO of Massey, has been saved by Hayward is astounding right now.

JEFF BIGGERS: It’s totally astounding. And I think your last clip on BP is very important, because we’re not only seeing an energy policy based on crisis management — or mismanagement — we’re really seeing a corporate culture of corruption that is being covered up by our government right now. And then I think the fact that we’re having this behind-closed-doors investigation of the Massey disaster is really emblematic of ultimately a thinly veiled cover-up that’s happening.

This is the situation, Amy and Juan. Not only does United Mine Workers not — are not allowed to have a representative in these interviews that are taking place behind closed doors, but the Massey lawyers are able to be with their members during their investigations. It’s a complete double standard, a level of hypocrisy that’s just mind-blowing, in terms of protecting the interests of Massey Energy.

And why are the United Mine Workers suing, and why are the families suing? Because they feel the integrity of these closed-door interviews, the integrity of these closed investigations, ultimately are going to compromise the findings, because it’s not that the Massey workers are afraid to speak out. It’s that MSHA, the Mine Safety Health Administration, is afraid to ask the hard questions, which may imply that they, in fact, have failed to enforce the laws.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And under what regulations are they allowed to conduct these hearings in secret?

JEFF BIGGERS: Well, it’s a policy that’s been made, of course, by MSHA itself. Joe Main, who of course is a former official with United Mine Workers, has completely confounded the mining community. You know, many years ago, he actually spoke out about how we have to have open investigations if we truly want to get to the truth. And then here he is now leading an agency that not only is having investigations behind closed doors, but are really providing very little information at all, as if not only there is a level of a cover-up, but just sheer incompetence. They’re really turning the investigations into a debacle right now.

AMY GOODMAN: A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that a Massey Energy Corporation coal mine with one of the highest safety violation and injury rates in the nation did not commit enough serious safety violations to qualify for a special enforcement program that could lead to a shutdown. The ruling marked the end of the latest battle in the government’s decades-long effort to rein in the mine. And Mine Safety Health Administration director Joseph Main, MSHA director Joseph Main, said it showed the system is broken. What about this?

JEFF BIGGERS: You know, and so, here’s the official who’s in charge of the system even admitting the system is broken. So not only do we have a regulatory crisis, but we have the people who are in charge of regulation saying, “We don’t know how to fix it,” you know? I think what we’re pointing at, that ultimately — is that we have a system that is going to allow itself to be circumvented, that ultimately, when you have criminal behavior, whether it’s from BP or from Massey or the many other coal — big coal barons that are operating today in a continual state of violation, that we ultimately have a regulatory system that fails.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s happened at the mine since the accident? Because obviously it’s been lost in the public furor over the BP spill. What’s been happening in recent weeks?

JEFF BIGGERS: They’ve been following through with the investigation. But there continues to be all sorts of outbursts of methane, and they have to sort of enter and exit. There’s been problems with lightning, therefore they’re not able to continue with the investigation. And I think what I really want to point out, too, is, since the mining disaster, over 180 coal miners in America have died from black lung disease. And no one is talking about this aspect, that this is just another situation of regulatory failure, that MSHA is not stepping up to the plate to crack down on the regulations and making sure we have proper enforcement just with coal dust inhalation, that the coal industry itself is continuing to operate in a state of lawlessness.

AMY GOODMAN: Has it changed under President Obama?

JEFF BIGGERS: It has changed just a tiny bit. I think, once again, what we’re realizing is the regulatory system itself is in crisis. And what we need is a road map to some sort of future, some sort of transition, some sort of way of ultimately getting off coal and getting off fossil fuels. And I think that’s really what’s coming to head here now, is like when are we going to move beyond this kind of energy policy of crisis management?

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s very interesting. You have this oil catastrophe. You have this coal catastrophe. Yet there is almost no coverage in the mainstream media about what the alternatives are.


AMY GOODMAN: You go from the coverage to the car ad, the coverage to the car ad.

JEFF BIGGERS: You know, and that has always been my feeling as a journalist and as a historian, that a crisis is never a crisis unless it’s validated by a disaster. And so, we’re just waiting for another disaster. And we have all these ticking time bombs ready to go off. You know, the BP oil disaster is horrific, and it’s catastrophic, but it’s in the millions of gallons. And if you look up just a few miles up from the Upper Big Branch coal mine, there’s a billion-gallon coal slurry impoundment held back by an earthen dam. And right now Massey, in massive violations, is blasting with a mountaintop removal operation, a strip mining operation, that is once again compromising and jeopardizing the earthen dam that is holding back almost six billion gallons of toxic coal sludge. And if that earthen dam broke, as it did ten years ago in eastern Kentucky, when not one single mainstream news media covered it, then the people below, the same coal miners who have just lost twenty-nine people in the Upper Big Branch, they will have less than fifteen minutes to flee a seventy-foot tidal wave of toxic coal slurry.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama’s position on mountaintop removal?

JEFF BIGGERS: Is that, once again, we somehow can regulate this, we have to find a way to do it safely. And it really points to the fact that they don’t understand the crisis at hand, that — why are we waiting for another disaster? We have hundreds, if not thousands, of coal slurry impoundments and coal ash ponds, of course, that broke like in Tennessee, that are waiting to happen. Why are we waiting for these ticking time bombs to go off before we finally moved toward a clean energy policy?

JUAN GONZALEZ: There seems to be a belief in the Obama administration and among technocrats in government today that no problem cannot be solved by better technology.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And there are some things where one disaster — you may have to wait twenty or thirty years, but one disaster will show you that all of your assumptions of the previous decades were for naught and were based on a faulty analysis. And we’ve seen that with nuclear power. We’ve seen it, as you’re saying, with coal — the potential is still there. Now we’re seeing it obviously with oil.


AMY GOODMAN: And having the faith that the large corporation knows what to do. You had the spokesperson Robert Gibbs, you had President Obama himself, Gibbs saying they have the technical expertise to plug the hole. They had no idea. And then you transfer this to what’s happening with coal. And then you have the whistleblowers. I mean, in the case of the fishermen, before BP got in trouble, they’re sending out contracts. They were totally comfortable putting it in print: you can’t talk to the press. Now you’ve got this whistleblower, Ricky Lee Campbell, who has now sued — filed a, rather, whistleblower complaint with the Labor Department alleging he was fired after he made comments about the safety of the mine, owned by Don Blankenship and Massey Energy.


AMY GOODMAN: And other workers are continuing to say this now in the mines. Miners are saying they’re terrified because of retaliation.

JEFF BIGGERS: Right. In fact, I think we’ve had some amazing admissions now from the miners and their families, who would come home and say, “We knew this was going to happen. It’s not a matter of 'if,' but 'when.'” I think what’s really sad, and what we’re finding out now — and I think this is really — pinpoints the real crisis at hand — is, what is MSHA trying to hide? And I think what we found out that for years the Bush and Cheney administration have stacked MSHA with so many representatives from the coal industry that ultimately we’re paying the price right now, that they have not only enforced the laws, but they’ve been part of this complete corporate culture of corruption.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jeff Biggers, we want to thank you very much for being with us, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. A play adapted from his book is being performed in New York this weekend at the Gene Frankel Theater. The play is called 4 1/2 Hours: Across the Stones of Fire. For one thirty-second description of that play.

JEFF BIGGERS: Our play is about the human rights crisis of mountaintop removal and reckless coal mining. And we felt that if you can’t go see the true crisis that’s happening in the coal fields, we would bring the coal fields to the national stage. It’s the first national touring theater production that really looks at the human stories, the human cost of coal in the coal fields that’s happening today when we flick on our light switch.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Biggers, we’ll link to it at

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