DAVID GREENE, Host:
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT: Several former Massey miners say it works like this.
M: When an MSHA inspector comes onto a Massey mine's property, the code word goes out: We've got a man on the property.
M: Usually they start hollering on the mine phones that there's somebody up coming underground.
M: 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: But Fluty said, for the most part, workers only put up curtains when they were tipped off an inspector was coming.
M: 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.
M: 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?
M: Depends on how many inspectors is there.
LANGFITT: If there had been no inspectors, would they have ever hung curtains?
M: 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.
M: 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: Kevin Stricklin oversees coal mine safety for the government. He said inspectors blitzed the Massey mines and stopped people from tipping off workers inside.
M: 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.
M: 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.
M: 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.
M: 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.
M: 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: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.
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