Mining Company Has History Of Safety Violations The company that owns the Upper Big Branch Mine paid nearly $900,000 in fines last year for numerous safety violations. Host Melissa Block talks with the former director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Davitt McAteer, who has led investigations into other mine fatalities in West Virginia.
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Mining Company Has History Of Safety Violations

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Mining Company Has History Of Safety Violations

Mining Company Has History Of Safety Violations

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Were going to hear now from mine safety expert Davitt McAteer, who led investigations into two earlier fatal mine disasters in West Virginia. He also served as director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Clinton. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. DAVITT McATEER (Mine Safety Expert): You're welcome.

BLOCK: When we hear about this mine liberating two million cubic feet of methane gas every 24 hours, what does that indicate to you? And what does it dictate in terms of safety?

Mr. McATEER: Well, the presence of methane gas is the presence of a risk in a mine because of its potential for explosion. This is a high level of liberation, because you've got to take that gas in the working area and you've got to remove it so that it doesn't ignite from a spark or some source, ignition source.

BLOCK: Well, let's couple that with what we know about the safety record at this mine, the Upper Big Branch mine. It was cited for 458 safety violations in 2009, assessed nearly $900,000 in penalties, and a large chunk of that did involve the ventilation plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, things like that. Put that in context for us, what does that say to you?

Mr. McATEER: Well, that's a large number of citations. Their citation level doubled from 2008 to 2009 as did their penalties, increased significantly. But just generally speaking, that's a high number. That's a number that suggests that you've got some problems and should be a red flag for people who are involved in management to say are we going in the right direction here? Is this the kind of thing that we need to be doing?

BLOCK: This mine is owned by Massey Energy Company. It's the fourth largest, I believe, coal producer in the country. And you investigated a fire at a mine that was also owned by Massey Coal. Can you tell us anything about the corporate culture of the company? I know widows involved in that fire, widows whose husbands died in that fire, sued, saying that the company put profit ahead of safety. Any truth to that?

Mr. McATEER: The - Massey has a difficult record when it comes to safety. Beginning as early as 2000, we looked at some of their fatal accidents when there were a rash of them, eight in one year. And they have a very spotty record that does not bode well for a culture of safety that's improving as you go through the mines. That was the finding in the Aracoma case as well. And in fact, the Aracoma report suggests that there was, indeed, a culture of profit above safety, and that there was a culture that was disregarding fundamental basic safety protections.

BLOCK: That fire was back in 2006. Any sense that things have changed since then?

Mr. McATEER: Unfortunately, the suggestion from yesterday is that they haven't changed very much.

BLOCK: It's interesting, though, because on Massey's Web site, it talks about the safety record at this mine being stronger than the industry average for the sixth consecutive year. So how do you square that?

Mr. McATEER: I take exception to that. I think that what they're saying is that their average for fatal accidents is stronger than the national average, that it's better than the national average. It appears that the accident record for non-fatal accidents is more than the national average. They had more accidents than the national average.

BLOCK: After the 2006 disaster at the Sago mine where 12 miners were killed, mine safety laws were overhauled. And I wonder if those changes have any effect on what we're seeing here in West Virginia, with this explosion and what may have caused it.

Mr. McATEER: Well, I think that they do have some comparison, but I think it's also - you're looking at apples and oranges in one sense. Anytime you have an accident where 25 individuals are killed, you got to say the laws are inadequate. We're not covering it. We're not providing sufficient protection for the miners. We ought not to have disasters of this magnitude in this country. We've got mines that operate 25, 30 years without a fatal. We've got mines that operate 40 years without a disaster, tens of dozens of mines. We shouldn't have a standard that allows for mines to have this kind of accident where you kill 25 people.

BLOCK: Davitt McAteer, thank you very much.

McATEER: You're welcome, Melissa. Thank you.

BLOCK: Davitt McAteer is the former director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

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