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Former Massey Workers Say Blast Wasn't A Surprise
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Former Massey Workers Say Blast Wasn't A Surprise

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

Let's turn once again to that coal mine disaster in West Virginia. We're going to hear from some miners who quit Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in the final months before the explosion, because they thought it was going to blow up.

One who had worked at the mine for 13 years described Upper Big Branch as a bomb. Yesterday, Massey officials said that samples showed the air in the mine was safe just before the blast.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has more.

FRANK LANGFITT: Federal inspectors cited Upper Big Branch four times this year for problems with ventilation systems designed to dilute methane, and three times for a buildup of combustible material such as coal dust. Inspectors said all seven incidents were reasonably likely to cause serious injury.

One miner who quit Upper Big Branch before the blast said, quote, "Basically what they've done is created a massive bomb underground. I knew it was going to happen."

The man, like two others who had worked at Upper Big Branch, did not want to be named. He said he feared being black-balled from other jobs in mining, West Virginia's dominant industry.

Another miner who had worked in a section affected by the explosion said methane levels frequently set off detectors, forcing the automatic shutdown of a coal-cutting machine. Using mining lingo, he said the machine, quote, "gassed off all the time - three, four, five times a shift."

At a press conference yesterday, Massey officials insisted they run safe mines. And board member Stanley Suboleski said pre-shift inspections found nothing wrong before the blast.

Mr. STANLEY SUBOLESKI (Board Director, Massey Energy): No hazards were found, and methane measurements ranged from zero to nearly zero. There was no indication of a dangerous condition, yet only a few tens of minutes later the explosion occurred.

LANGFITT: Massey CEO Don Blankenship said the company still doesn't know what caused the blast. He insisted that safety always comes first at Massey and that he set up programs long ago to ensure that.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): The naming of those two programs speaks for itself: S1 - safety is job one; P2 - production is job two. And that's been the case for my entire tenure.

LANGFITT: Some former Massey workers say Blankenship's got it backwards.

Mr. TEDDY COLE (Former Massey Coal Miner): It's supposed to be safety first, but to me it was production first.

Mr. BRIAN JERRAL (Former Massey Coal Miner): A lot of times it's production first and safety third.

Mr. ADAM VANCE (Former Massey Coal Miner): They cover their self with their safety meetings, but the main thing Massey's out for is to get that almighty dollar. If the coal ain't running, they ain't making no money.

LANGFITT: That was Teddy Cole, who spent a dozen years working at Upper Big Branch. Brian Jerral, who worked for Massey between 2000 and 2002, and Adam Vance, who worked two Massey mines off and on over the last few years. All three said the company talks about safety, but once underground it's all about getting coal.

Bobby Inman has served on Massey's board since 1985. At yesterday's news conference, he said the idea that the company puts profits over people is absurd.

Mr. BOBBY INMAN (Former Board Member, Massey Energy): It's a big lie.

LANGFITT: Inman said Massey's enemies, including resentful unions, have been pushing the idea in the media for the last several weeks.

Mr. INMAN: Where did this big lie start? The first came from a plaintiff's lawyer, the second from the president of the AFL-CIO, the third from the president of the AFL-CIO; the fourth use of it from the head of the United Mine Workers.

LANGFITT: Actually, Don Blankenship fueled this idea himself in a 2005 internal memo. Last week, I showed that memo to Ron Fluty. Fluty is a former Massey worker, union member and retired federal mine inspector. He inspected Massey mines for three years. I asked Fluty to read the memo.

Mr. RON FLUTY (Former Federal Mine Inspector): It says: If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisor, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal - build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever - you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.

LANGFITT: What does that memo mean?

Mr. FLUTY: That means that all safety has been thrown out the door.

LANGFITT: What part of that says safety out the door?

Mr. FLUTY: Well, when you dont build overcasts, thats what directs the ventilation to the face, you know, to the areas where the miners are working.

LANGFITT: Whats your reaction to this memo?

Mr. FLUTY: Listen, this is pitiful. I mean, you know, a lot of times I've thought this, you know, that - things that I've seen has went on at some of these mines. But to see this and read it, I mean it's - to me it's totally devastating.

LANGFITT: The memo became part of a lawsuit filed in the deaths of two miners at a Massey operation in 2006. A Massey subsidiary eventually pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the case. Blankenship has said the memo was taken out of context. A week later he sent another clarifying memo, saying safety was not, quote, "a secondary responsibility."

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can follow a timeline of the events surrounding that deadly blast at the coal mine owned by Massey Energy at NPR.org.

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