A former Massey Energy coal miner has filed a federal whistle-blower complaint, claiming he was fired after complaining about unsafe conditions at two Massey mines in West Virginia, NPR News has learned. One of the coal mines is Upper Big Branch, where an explosion killed 29 workers April 5.
Ricky Lee Campbell's complaint says he repeatedly told his supervisors about failing brakes on the coal shuttle cars he drove at the Slip Ridge Cedar Grove mine.
The 24-year-old from Beckley, W.Va., also spoke to a newspaper about unsafe conditions at Upper Big Branch, where he worked until shortly before the accident. And he provided information in the federal investigation of the blast.
Campbell spoke to the newspaper on April 7. A week later, he was given a five-day suspension "subject to discharge" and then fired April 23. He then filed the whistle-blower complaint with the Labor Department, contending that his persistent safety concerns, his media interview and his role in the federal probe prompted his termination.
A preliminary investigation by the agency concluded that Campbell's complaint "is not frivolous" and "there is reasonable cause to believe that Mr. Campbell's dismissal was motivated by his exercise of protected activities."
Details of the case are described in court documents obtained by NPR. Additional information was disclosed at a June 4 hearing in Beckley before an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which was witnessed by an NPR reporter.
Campbell worked as a roof bolter and shuttle car driver at Upper Big Branch until he was transferred to Slip Ridge the week before the explosion. Two days after the accident, Campbell returned to the office at Upper Big Branch to pick up a paycheck and was approached by two reporters who asked him questions about conditions there.
The interview was videotaped and portions were posted on the website of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"This mine was one of the worst I've ever been in," Campbell told the Post-Gazette reporters. "This place, it was real bad. ... I actually told my family, 'You know, somebody is going to get killed up here.'"
Campbell was later quoted in the newspaper as saying: "You can either work in the mines or flip burgers. And I can't support my family like I want to flipping burgers."
At the same time, he was complaining to his supervisors about safety problems at Slip Ridge, where he began work April 5.
Campbell later testified at the hearing that he immediately experienced problems with the brakes on his shuttle cars. "The brakes were not working," he said. "I could not stop."
Campbell also said the pedal that propelled the electric shuttle car kept getting stuck when it was engaged, which made stopping the vehicle even more difficult. And he said he "told everybody every night I worked there" that he didn't have working brakes and that the pedal was sticking.
"I was told it would be fixed," Campbell testified. "But it was never fixed."
He blamed two accidents on brake failure. Both damaged equipment and forced delays in coal production.
"I knew I was not supposed to run bad equipment, but you do what the bosses tell you," Campbell said. "I didn’t want to get fired."
Campbell and Jonathan Price, his attorney, declined to discuss the case.
"He was worried he was going to kill somebody," Campbell's father, Rick, told NPR after the hearing. "He'd be so tore up that when he came home he'd throw up in the road."
Massey had requested the hearing after the Labor Department took up Campbell's cause and sought his immediate and temporary reinstatement. The proceeding before Judge L. Zane Gill focused specifically on the request to restore Campbell's job while the Labor Department considers in more detail the merits of his whistle-blower claim.
Just before the hearing, the Labor Department removed from the case the claim that Campbell's participation in the federal investigation was one reason for his dismissal. The agency reserved the right to revive that part of the complaint in the future. Labor Department attorney Samuel Charles Lord declined to comment, but the move prevented Massey Energy from trying to learn details about the federal investigation in its questioning of Campbell.
Massey's attorney, Thomas Kleeh, tried to discredit Campbell's testimony and suggest that he was negligent, but was frustrated by the narrow scope of the proceeding.
Four Massey workers and managers were outside the courtroom ready to testify about what Kleeh implied was Campbell's "clear history and pattern of equipment damage," as well as "two significant instances of discipline." But repeated objections sustained by Judge Gill prompted Kleeh to abandon that approach and the Massey witnesses.
Reinstatement hearings have a relatively low burden of proof, and case law cited by the Labor Department indicates a judge can't consider the full merits of the whistle-blower claim until later hearings that focus specifically on the details of the claim.
"It's a waste of time to listen to a bunch of evidence the court can't weigh," said Labor Department attorney Lord.
But Kleeh insisted that for Campbell to be reinstated, "there has to be a connection" between his complaints and his interview and dismissal. "There's no evidence tying Campbell's complaints to the adverse actions," Kleeh said, adding, "There's no evidence his supervisors were aware of the news stories" in which Campbell was quoted.
In a statement late Monday, Massey Energy said, "Mr. Campbell's claims are completely without merit. As the facts in this matter come to light, it will be very clear why Mr. Campbell was terminated and that his termination had nothing to do with him raising concerns about Massey Energy’s safety practices."
The statement did not include any such facts or any other specifics about the case.
By law, Judge Gill must decide by Friday whether Massey will be ordered to put Campbell back to work temporarily while the full merits of the claim are investigated further by the Labor Department.
The company has the option of an "economic reinstatement," in which Campbell is back on the payroll but does not report for work, if it "doesn't want him," as Lord put it.
Campbell's father told NPR that his son is desperate to return to work because he's been unable to find another job and is struggling to support two small children and a fiancee.
"He's on the verge of losing everything," Rick Campbell said.