HEALTH

Miner's union accuses W.Va. mine operator Massey of industrial homicide

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - The nation's largest mine workers union accused Massey Energy Co. and its managers Tuesday of "industrial homicide" for creating the conditions behind the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at a southern West Virginia coal mine.

In a scathing 90-page report on its own investigation into the Upper Big Branch disaster, the United Mine Workers of America called the company "a rogue corporation" that put profits first and safety last, and labeled the Montcoal mine "a bomb waiting to go off." Massey is now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.

The union demanded criminal prosecution of at least 18 Massey managers, including former Chief Executive Don Blankenship, who retired last December and has since vanished from public view.

It also recommends more than a dozen changes in state and federal laws and regulations to crack down on bad operators, from tougher penalties for illegal ventilation plan changes to stronger protections for whistleblowers reporting safety problems.

The UMW also rebuked federal regulators- and, to a lesser extent, their state counterparts - for what it called an "unconscionable" failure to use all the tools they had to shut down the long-troubled mine and prevent the nation's deadliest coal mine explosion in four decades.

Rather, the union charges, MSHA District 4 managers discouraged field inspectors who tried to strenuously enforce the law – one reason it also recommends Congress mandate independent investigations when mining accidents cause multiple deaths.

MSHA, which has yet to publish its final report, said it's reviewing the union report and will consider its recommendations. Director Joe Main said MSHA agrees that Massey maintained a culture that valued profits over lives.

"These findings underline the fact that MSHA can't be in every mine every shift, and that some mine operators take advantage of that," he said, adding that he has asked Congress for more tools to protect miners.

"MSHA has already begun to make a number of administrative, regulatory, and policy changes as a result of the lessons learned from UBB," he said, "and we are aggressively moving forward with those changes to improve the safety and health of our nation's miners."

Alpha said it has yet to reach its own conclusions about what happened at Upper Big Branch but noted that since it took over Massey operations in June, it has launched a "Running Right" safety program and trained more than 7,500 people.

"I think the goal everyone shares is to ensure that an accident like this never occurs again," said spokesman Ted Pile.

Miner Stanley Stewart, who worked at Upper Big Branch the day of the blast, and Patty Quarles, whose son Gary died there, agree with the UMW that Massey managers must be prosecuted.

"Somebody called the shots, and I don't think these sections bosses and mine foremen can be held accountable alone," Quarles said. "It goes higher than that. It goes all the way up the ladder to Blankenship. ... He needs to pay for what he's done."

Stewart said even though MSHA inspectors could have done more, he believes they were under a lot of pressure. "Massey manipulated them and manipulated the system to fool them a lot of times," he said.

The union contends MSHA had plenty of opportunity to intervene: From Jan. 1, 2009, until the explosion on April 5, 2010, it cited Upper Big Branch for 645 violations and imposed penalties of more than $1.2 million.

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