Former miners and federal inspectors say Massey Energy routinely games the safety inspection process, which is designed to prevent the kind of explosion that killed 29 men last month in a Massey coal mine in West Virginia.
In interviews with NPR and in a public hearing this week, miners said Massey often fails to take basic safety precautions until an inspector from the Mine Safety and Health Administration approaches underground.
"When an MSHA inspector comes onto a Massey mine property, the code word goes out, 'We've got a man on the property,' " Gary Quarles, a Massey miner, told a House of Representatives hearing earlier this week.
Mike Shull, a former Massey miner, said the mine staff call underground to warn employees. That gives workers time to fix violations and comply with safety regulations.
"You probably had an hour and 15 minutes to get ready, so we didn't move at no fast pace," Shull said. "Just got things legal."
Massey declined to comment for this story, but the company has repeatedly said it abides by the government's inspection process.
Allegations Of Rule-Flouting
But former Massey employees said the company routinely ignored federal requirements for adequate airflow to protect miner safety.
Ron Fluty Jr. said that when he worked for Massey, 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 that for the most part workers only put up curtains if they were tipped to an inspection.
"Usually didn't never hang no curtain unless somebody showed up," Fluty said.
When asked if they would have hung curtains if there had been no inspectors, Fluty said: "I seriously doubt it."
Quarles, who lost his son in last month's explosion, told lawmakers that Massey skirts these safety requirements because they take time and get in the way of making money.
"When MSHA is not present, there is no thought of doing anything other than producing coal," Quarles said. "The miners are not allowed to hang curtains or conduct any other safety operations if they would interfere with or delay the production of coal."
In the past several months, the federal government launched surprise inspections at several Massey mines following anonymous complaints they weren't hanging curtains.
MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said inspectors blitzed the Massey mines and stopped people from tipping off workers inside. "We captured the phone and we went underground and unfortunately in all three of these cases, we found the anonymous tips were true," Stricklin said.
Stricklin says most miners don't want to endanger themselves by ignoring safety standards. "I think some of them must do it because they fear they won't have a job," he said.
Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has said the company does not put coal production over safety and won't tolerate reckless behavior.
At a hearing last week, Blankenship told senators the company punished workers who were recently caught not properly ventilating mines.
"All nine individuals who were felt to be aware of and participating in the improper activity were discharged," Blankenship said.
Blankenship also reiterated that safety is Massey's top priority.
"I can only say when you have 7,000 people, as is the case with a lot of companies, you can't keep track of all of them," Blankenship said. "But we make our very best effort when we hire people to make sure we're hiring ... well-qualified, well-meaning people who can behave safely in a coal mine."
Massey Not Alone
But Terry Scarbro presents a very different picture of Massey.
Scarbro, who spent 14 years as a federal mine inspector, inspected 20 Massey mines, including the one that blew up last month. He said tipping off workers to inspections was common.
"Is there any way Don Blankenship doesn't know this is going on? No, there's no way," Scarbro said. "He knows it's going on. All management knows it's going on and the employees are guilty and they know it's going on."
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 about it.
"It's a cat and mouse game," Scarbro said. "You catch me, I'll fix it. If I can get ahead of you and fix it before you catch it, then you didn't see it."
Scarbro says Massey shouldn't be singled out for playing cat and mouse.
He says many other coal mining firms play the same game.