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Massey's poor safety record speaks louder than hype

date: 
March 21, 2005

Editorial published 03/21/2005 in the Charleston Gazette

Cecil E. Roberts
International President, United Mine Workers of America

Let me get this straight. Just a few weeks ago, West Virginia coal mine safety inspectors paid a surprise visit to Massey Energy's newly acquired Mammoth mine near Smithers and shut it down, citing numerous safety violations including several very serious charges concerning improper ventilation. In fact, conditions were so bad, state inspectors categorized the violations as creating a situation where "imminent danger" exists.

And later we read that Massey was cited for six violations related to illegal explosions at its Edwight surface mine. Alarmingly, in their investigation, state inspectors also discovered that prior to the illegal explosions, Massey failed to evacuate a nearby underground mine, putting the lives of those working coal miners at great risk.

This is the reality, but you would never know it if you read Don Blankenship's recent commentary in the Gazette. If you believe what he writes, Massey mines are "significantly safer than the average U.S. coal mine." Well, I don't know about you, but if deliberately placing your miners in harm's way by allowing them to operate equipment in an improperly ventilated atmosphere -- or jeopardizing miners' lives with illegal explosions -- is Massey's way of operating its mines "significantly safer" than most, then the UMWA fears more than ever for miners.

Throughout the coal fields, Massey is known as one of the nation's worst operators when it comes to protecting its miners' health and safety. Blankenship can sugarcoat that reality all he wants, but the facts speak for themselves. And whether he chooses to believe it or not, UMWA miners do have a contractual right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions. Unlike Massey miners, UMWA miners cannot be fired for refusing to work in dangerous conditions or because they report violations to proper agencies.

Truth be told, the UMWA believes the real reason Massey claims to be trying to turn things around with respect to its abysmal health and safety record (although you wouldn't know it at the Mammoth mine) is because we have been monitoring their every move, talking regularly with their miners and bosses, and helping educate the public about their record. But we haven't done it alone. We have been joined by several concerned citizen action and environmental groups, and we greatly appreciate their help.

Blankenship's blanket assertion that the UMWA only files grievances to protect "the inappropriate actions" of our members is offensive and just pure nonsense. Maybe he should visit his mines more often -- or a Consol, Peabody, Arch or any other working coal mine. Blankenship would see that it is the mine operator who dictates how coal is mined. He might also see that Massey's non-union miners must simply do as they are told, as was demonstrated recently at the Mammoth mine. One assumes there were Massey bosses supervising miners working in the section where there was imminent danger, right, Don?

And who was responsible for overseeing those illegal explosions and making sure that the mine directly underneath the blasting area was cleared? I guess when you're making $14 million a year, understanding how the business you head really works -- and ensuring your workers have adequate health and safety protections -- aren't items very high up on your list of priorities. Buying a state Supreme Court justice is, but these are not. Go figure.

Blankenship's statement that the UMWA's pension funds are not fully funded also is a total fabrication. The UMWA's pension plans are, in fact, fully funded.

Allow me to also talk about the UMWA's recent protest in front of the cleaning plant at Massey's Mammoth mine. We chose this location because, as one of our protesters' signs said, it truly is the ground zero of bankruptcy law abuse. Here, some 250 UMWA coal miners lost their jobs and their promised health-care benefits because of a federal bankruptcy judge's ruling.

To Blankenship's credit, he has been quoted several times agreeing with the UMWA that our Horizon miners were wronged in federal bankruptcy court. That is all well and good, but my question is, if Blankenship and Massey agree with the UMWA on this issue, then why have we not seen them on Capitol Hill lobbying alongside of us for reform? Better yet, why did Massey take advantage of the plight of Horizon's Cannelton miners by not allowing them all to keep their jobs? Yes, the UMWA demonstrated in front of a Massey facility, but trust me, we're in the halls of Congress almost every day lobbying to reform America's flawed bankruptcy laws. What is Blankenship's excuse?

That is how it is with the coal industry, though. When operators need lobbying help on issues like the Kyoto Protocol or the Bush administration's EPA rules governing mercury emissions, the UMWA is asked to take an active role, which we often do. However, when the UMWA is on Capitol Hill lobbying for bankruptcy reform or more stringent enforcement of the Mine Safety and Health Act, sympathetic coal industry CEOs or lobbyists are usually nowhere to be found.

Lead by example, Don. Help us lobby for Coal Act funding and bankruptcy reform. I'll be happy to escort you to Capitol Hill to do so. And the next time the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is trying to force ill-advised respirable dust rules down the throats of America's miners, join our fight to keep our nation's mines safe and healthy for miners. That kind of activity would lend a bit more credibility to your proclamation that Massey truly does want to be safer than most.

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