DAVID GREENE, host:
Another energy producer facing scrutiny is Massey Energy, which owns that West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers were killed in an explosion last month.
Former miners and federal inspectors say Massey Energy routinely undermines the safety inspection process. In interviews with NPR and at a public hearing this week, miners said Massey fails to take basic safety precautions and then only does so when an inspector is headed underground. Massey insists it doesn't tolerate such behavior and fires employees who engage in it.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT: The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, known as MSHA, inspects the nation's coal mines. It's a tough job, made even tougher when miners try to short-circuit the inspection process.
Several former Massey miners say it works like this.
Mr. GARY QUARLES (Former Miner, Massey Energy): When an MSHA inspector comes onto a Massey mine's property, the code word goes out: We've got a man on the property.
Mr. RON FLUTY, JR. (Former Miner, Massey Energy): Usually they start hollering on the mine phones that there's somebody up coming underground.
Mr. MIKE SHULL (Former Miner, Massey Energy): From the outside to the top of the hill where we worked at, you had probably an hour and 15 minutes to get ready. So you know, we didn't really move at no fast pace -just got things legal.
LANGFITT: That's Gary Quarles, Ron Fluty, Jr., and Mike Shull. The men worked at different Massey mines over the past decade, but they all said the same thing: Massey routinely ignored federal requirements for adequate airflow to protect miner safety.
When Ron Fluty worked for Massey, he said crews rarely put up ventilation curtains. The curtains are required by law to channel air to where miners are cutting coal, known as the face. The fresh air dilutes methane, disperses combustible coal dust, and prevents explosions. It also helps prevent black lung.
But Fluty said, for the most part, workers only put up curtains when they were tipped off an inspector was coming.
Mr. FLUTY: We'd be cleaning and rock dusting and hanging curtains and trying to get air to the face.
LANGFITT: So you would do it right, but only for the inspector.
Mr. FLUTY: Most of the time, yeah. Usually didn't never hang no curtain unless somebody showed up.
LANGFITT: You know, in a month or something, how many days would you actually have the curtains up?
Mr. FLUTY: Depends on how many inspectors is there.
LANGFITT: If there had been no inspectors, would they have ever hung curtains?
Mr. FLUTY: I seriously doubt it.
LANGFITT: Gary Quarles works for Massey and lost his son in last month's explosion. At a House committee hearing this week, he told lawmakers Massey skirts these safety requirements because they take time and get in the way of making money.
Mr. QUARLES: When MSHA is not present, there is no thought of doing anything other than producing coal. The miners are not allowed to hang curtains or conduct any other safety operations if they would interfere with the delay of production of coal.
LANGFITT: In the last several months, the federal government launched surprise inspections at several Massey mines following anonymous complaints they weren't hanging curtains.
Kevin Stricklin oversees coal mine safety for the government. He said inspectors blitzed the Massey mines and stopped people from tipping off workers inside.
Mr. KEVIN STRICKLIN (MSHA): We captured the phone and we went underground and unfortunately in all three of these cases we found the anonymous complaints to be true.
LANGFITT: Massey declined to comment for this story, but the company has said it always adheres to the inspection process. And at a Senate hearing last week, CEO Don Blankenship said workers recently caught not properly ventilating mines were punished.
Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): All nine individuals who were felt to be aware of and participating in the improper activity were discharged.
LANGFITT: Blankenship also reiterated that safety is Massey's top priority.
Mr. BLANKENSHIP: I can only say that when you have 7,000 people, as is the case with a lot of companies, you can't keep track of all of them. But we make our very best effort when we hire people to make sure we're hiring people who will produce safely. It includes drug testing, it includes criminal checks. So a big part of our safety program is trying to make sure we've got well-qualified, well-meaning people who can behave safely in a coal mine.
LANGFITT: Terry Scarbro spent 14 years as a federal mine inspector. He inspected 20 Massey mines, including the one that blew up. Scarbro said tipping off workers to inspections was common.
Mr. TERRY SCARBRO (Former Mine Inspector): Is there any way that Don Blankenship does not know this is going on? No, there's no way he don't know. He knows it's going on. All management knows it's going on, and the employees that's guilty, they know it's going on.
LANGFITT: Scarbro said it was painfully obvious. Sometimes he'd see a curtain that had just been hung and didn't even have coal dust on it. But he said he couldn't do anything.
Mr. SCARBRO: It's a cat and mouse game. You catch me, then I'll fix it. If I can get ahead of you and fix it before you catch it, then you didn't see it.
LANGFITT: Scarbro says Massey shouldn't be singled out for playing cat and mouse. He says many other coal mining firms play the same game.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.