From Monongah to Upper Big Branch, Profits Trump Safety
By Michael M. Barrick
BRIDGEPORT, W.VA. – Nearly four years after 29 coal miners died at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) has reported it has finished implementing the corrective actions designed to make the coal mining industry safer. It is not a new story. It is what we’ve heard after every coal mining disaster. One can only hope that this time, the changes will be lasting and effective.
For the families, it is a painful – unbearable even – reminder of the cost of mining coal in the Mountain State. Adding to the tragedy is the survivors’ knowledge that their fathers, sons, brothers and grandfathers died needlessly, their deaths easily preventable – if only Massey Energy, which owned the mine, had not put profits above lives.
Indeed, that is the blunt conclusion of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) that was convened following the underground explosion that took the lives of 29 miners. Among the panel’s findings are:
• The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
• These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
• Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
• Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.
In short, it is business as usual in the West Virginia coalfields. From the worst mining disaster in U.S. history, when more than 500 men and boys were killed in Monongah, W.Va. in 1907, to the most recent disaster at Upper Big Branch, the words of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones are as appropriate today as when she first spoke them roughly a century ago – “There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice.”
The last day of peace for the families of the miners at UBB was April 5, 2010. Just as miners were changing shifts in mid-afternoon at the UBB coal mine in this tiny mining community, an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed. So, while the government is not literally dropping bombs on coal miners as it did during the Coal War in the southern West Virginia coalfields in the 1920s, and companies may not employ private thugs to prevent union activity, the state is still not at peace. Coal operators have successfully pitted miners and others who benefit from coal mining against those who wish to stop the most egregious abuses, such as the UBB disaster and the death and destruction caused by Mountain Top Removal (MTR). Operators have convinced the public that any call for responsible mining is akin to calling for its abolition. That, of course, is nonsense; yet, profits are at stake, so perverting the truth is just another day at the office for the coal operators.
Our Culpability in Massey’s Failures
Indeed, it is that corporate culture of putting profits before people which led to the disaster. The GIIP report asserted, “Ultimately, 29 miners lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch mine because these safety systems failed in a major way. Massey Energy failed to maintain an adequate ventilation system at Upper Big Branch. The company failed to maintain its equipment. It failed to properly rock dust the mine. If those basic matters of safety are effectively practiced, there is no reason for miners to die as a result of explosions in 21st Century America” (73). Hence, one is rightfully outraged at Massey Energy and those responsible for oversight of them. However, death has been tolerated in the West Virginia coalfields for over a century now. It is tolerated not only by those making a profit from coalmining, but by all of us, unless we are serious about energy conservation and make our voices heard until mine disasters are not headlines, but history. We can – must – each examine our willingness to tolerate disasters. First though, we need to understand that the failure to aggressively pursue mine safety is not only inexcusable, it is as old as the industry. By comparing three mine disaster occurring over more than 100 years apart – Monongah in 1907, Sago in 2006, and UBB in 2010 – we will see that death has been tolerated in the West Virginia coalfields because of a failure of will. Preserving lives has simply not been as important as preserving profits – 100 years ago and still today.
On December 6, 1907, at about 10:30 a.m., two coal mines – connected underground – known as Monongah No. 6 and Monongah No. 8, were destroyed by a series of explosions that killed more than 500 miners. While the official count listed 358 miners and three rescuers dead, the use of subcontractors by miners to increase their production, as well as the number of funerals, have lead historians to conclude that the number of dead likely exceeds 500. Located just south of Fairmont, the mines – owned by the Fairmont Coal Company – rocked the earth, destroyed the mines’ infrastructure, and sent debris flying hundreds of yards above ground as it obliterated above-ground entrances and buildings.
The disaster affected every person in the town, which was built along the banks and hillsides surrounding the West Fork branch of the Monongahela River. Despite its small size and hard living, it was a diverse community, made up of nearby residents but also a vast number of immigrants from Central and Southern Europe. By 1905, Monongah had about 6,000 residents.
Both mines were less than 10 years old and were producing in excess of 12,000 tons of coal a day by the time of explosion. They were also considered state-of-the art. “Mines No. 6 and 8 both employed the most up-to-date, sophisticated ventilation systems.” (McAteer 64). John Nugent, the Immigration Commissioner for the State of West Virginia affirmed an advertisement made by The Consolidated Coal Co., Inc. seeking immigrant help. The mines, the company claimed, were, “Practically free from explosive gases.” (McAteer 74).
Obviously, the advertisements were mistaken or false. Thus, the all-too cozy relationship between operators and those charged with regulating them was formed. As the UBB GIIP reports, that has remained unchanged a century later. While the exact cause of the Monongah explosion was never determined – as much for political as scientific reasons – there was no mistaking that the influence the mining owners enjoyed with local and state politicians ensured that the operators’ interests – profits – always trumped the miners’ interests – a safe working environment. “What has to be said is that the rescue efforts were not successful and the equipment provided to miners to ensure their escape was inadequate” (McAteer 264).
When the explosion occurred, 19 coal cars (each loaded with two tons of coal), being pulled out of the bowels of the mine broke free and crashed 1,300 feet back into the mine portal. The runaway cars broke lose electrical wiring, destroyed structures and ultimately disrupted the ventilation system. “At that instant, from deep within the mine an explosion rumbled, a terrible explosive report rocketing out of both mines, rippling shocks through the earth in every direction. …A second explosion followed immediately, and at the No. 8 mine entrances explosive forces rocketed out of the mine mouth like blasts from a cannon, the forces shredding everything in their path” (McAteer 116).
Blaming the Victims
Even though an exact cause was not immediately known or even determined, it was not long before the miners themselves were made the scapegoats. Fairmont Coal Company President C. W. Watson immediately capitalized on the anti-immigrant feelings of the time, telling the New York Times almost immediately after the disaster that “…he could not account for the ignition of the dust unless it had been through careless use of an open lamp” (McAteer 158).
Conversely, Clarence Hall, a leading expert on mine explosions at the time, was in nearby Pennsylvania when the catastrophe occurred. He stated, “When I enter a mine these days it is with fear and trembling. We seem to know so little of these gas and dust explosions. Sometimes I feel the poor miner has not a ghost of a show for his life when he enters a mine.” (159)
Tragedy upon Tragedy
There were no organized rescue teams in U.S. mines at the time. However, the dangers to the rescuers, along with the reality that the effort was a recovery effort for dead miners allowed for time to organize miners and volunteers. Of course, rescue efforts – such as repairing the ventilation systems in the hopes of removing the deadly gases from the mines – were heroic, if unsuccessful. It soon became apparent to the rescuers and stunned families of the miners gathering on the Monongah hillsides that the force of the blast, the lack of oxygen, and the instability of the mine combined for a horrible reality – virtually all those in the mine had perished. Recovered bodies were a horrid site to behold. Mine explosions “…inflict multiple-system life threatening injuries on many persons simultaneously. When the explosion is of a high order of magnitude, it can produce a defining supersonic, overpressurization shock wave” (131). Injuries include damaged or destroyed lungs, blunt force trauma to the head and body, ruptures of the middle ear and eye, and damage to internal organs. Those that survive those injuries generally die from suffocation as lethal gases are released following the explosion. Rescuers, too, were at great risk. In addition to the instability of the mine and lack of oxygen, rescuers had no personal protective equipment or breathing devices. “Imagine a handful of reckless, bedraggled men going into the cavern with lanterns with sulfurous fumes in their faces dragging out the charred bodies of men, some with their faces burned off. That is what Monongah looked like. …In some instances the bodies were perfectly preserved and recognition was immediate; in other cases, the bodies were so badly disfigured or mutilated, identification was impossible.” (143).
An Unholy Alliance
Motivated by the example of John D. Rockefeller, who in the late 19th Century controlled much of the world’s oil resources, financiers from outside of West Virginia collaborated with well-connected Mountain State elected officials, judges, municipal leaders and state and local law enforcement to extract coal from its mountains, leaving not even the dignity of the coal miners intact. “The fact that the Fairmont companies, led by the Monongah mines, paid lower wages across the board meant that the three mines could sell their coal at a lower rate and thereby capture an increasing share of the markets, threatening the wages and unionization in the other states” (McAteer 101). Indeed, by the turn of the century, three men – U.S. Senators Johnson N. Camden and Clarence Watson, as well as Judge A. B. Fleming, controlled all of the mines along the Monongahela River in West Virginia, as well as the railroad lines.
Meanwhile, the company fought efforts to compensate the surviving family members of the dead miners. This is not surprising, as “In the early 1900s, families of miners who died in a mine accident or disaster had nothing in the way of economic protection and little legal recourse following a mine disaster. This was especially true in West Virginia where the coal interest was entwined with every facet of the state’s political, economic, social and legal systems” (McAteer 212).
Companies also vigorously – and successfully – opposed unionization efforts for decades. “The powerful elite of West Virginia on both Democrat and Republican side of the aisle united in their opposition to union organization efforts, and after seeing the success of the Fairmont Consolidation Company, the southern West Virginia mine operations that wished to build on the success met in secret to decide on some general plan of resistance to union encroachments based on the successful strategy employed at Monongah” (McAteer 113).
So, politicians debated and dithered. Meanwhile, miners continued to die at alarming rates. In fact, “On November 20, 1968, the Farmington Mine, a mine not five miles from the Monongah mine in the same Pittsburgh seam owned by the same company, Consolidation Coal Company, exploded, trapping seventy-eight miners” ( McAteer 262). Though federal legislation followed that disaster – the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 – the unholy alliance between coal officials and West Virginia elected leaders continued.
The Monongah mines operated until 1961, when the supply of coal was exhausted. Much progress would be expected over the 55 years since the deadly explosion. Indeed, some was made, but not enough. This was proven four years before UBB, at the Sago Mine on January 2, 2006, when an explosion ripped through the mine in Upshur County near Buckhannon. That disaster claimed 12 lives. All but one of the 12 men had survived the blast, but were trapped and later died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Hence, pledges from politicians that a disaster like that at UBB won’t be allowed to happen again simply ring hollow. After Sago, then-West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III (and now the state’s junior U.S. senator) pledged to have West Virginia lead the nation and world in mine safety. An independent investigation was held, laws were passed – and business continued as usual.
Understandably, surviving relatives looked for meaning in the disaster. John Groves, a brother of Jerry Groves, a miner killed at Sago, said, “Even though he’s gone now, he’s going to be helping people, because we’re going to be, through him, working to make sure that a disaster like this never happens again” (Sago GIPP 10). With all due respect to Mr. Groves and his family, it would seem that his brother died in vain. While such a statement may sound harsh and even disrespectful of a fallen miner, it’s not; in fact, the opposite is true. It is only when we acknowledge that these miners have died in vain – have died needlessly because their deaths were preventable – will we quit rationalizing and demand that we do what we are capable of doing – making the industry much safer.
Another Preventable Disaster
While the Sago disaster was not caused by safety violations as blatant as those discovered at UBB, it nevertheless was rooted in the unholy alliance – and just plain mediocrity by enforcement officials. Testimony suggests that the company – International Coal Group – did not do all that was required by law to minimize the dangers presented by lightning strikes. Also, the seals used to isolate the impact of an explosion failed. And, the emergency operations plan/command center was characterized by confusion and inept leadership. Indeed, in an infamous memorable statement, the governor and others reported to waiting family members that all the miners had survived. This was based on poorly executed rescue and communication plans.
The disaster started at about 6:30 a.m., when a methane ignition in a sealed area of the mine caused the explosion, propelling smoke, dust, debris and lethal carbon monoxide into the working sections of the mine. Those who died did so awaiting rescue. While it is true that a lighting strike was recorded within five miles of Sago at the time of the explosion, no definitive cause has been determined. However, what is clear is that several safety precautions – beginning with seals that should have contained the explosion to failed communications systems and equipment – turned the explosion into a disaster.
UPPER BIG BRANCH
Just four years later, the scene would be repeated at the UBB mine. Only this time, unlike Monongah and Sago, there was no question as to the cause of the tragedy. At the time of the tragedy, the mine was owned and operated by Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. According to the GIPP report, “The explosion was the result of failures of basic safety procedures identified and codified to protect the lives of miners. The company’s ventilation system did not adequately ventilate the mines. As a result, explosive gases were allowed to build up. The company failed to meet federal and state safe principal standards for the application of rock dust. Therefore, coal dust provided the fuel that allowed the explosion to propagate through the mine. Third, water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained and failed to function as they should have. As a result, a small ignition could not be quickly extinguished” (4). In short, Massey’s safety systems failed and both federal and state inspectors “…did not provide adequate and proper oversight” (4).
The Coalmining Culture
The loss of 29 men – despite the promises of the governor and other officials – occurred because the coalmining culture in West Virginia has not changed in a century. It was Massey strategy to “litigate away” inspection violations and purposely mislead inspectors. Additionally, government officials charged with ensuring mine safety ignored documentation, overlooked dangerous situations, failed to force improvements – in short, were mediocre at best and negligent at worst in doing their work.
Massey’s operating principles included political influence peddling without regard for campaign finance laws. “What is factual and well documented is that Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship had a long history of wielding or attempting to wield influence in the state’s seats of government” (UBB GIPP 85). Blankenship spent at least $3 million of his personal fortune to unseat Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, trumping up accusations that the judge was “soft” on sex offenders. With another “friend” already on the court, Blankenship had literally purchased justice in West Virginia. He now had few, if any, obstacles to stand in his way of ignoring safety laws and using fraudulent business practices to put competitors out of business.
And, state inspectors knew that UBB was troublesome. Even though the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Safety and Training (WVMHST) is notoriously understaffed, inspectors considered conditions at UBB so perilous that inspectors were on site at the mine for about 85 days in the year preceding the disaster, and had issued 330 violations totaling nearly $155,000 in penalties.
Inspectors can only do so much, though. “The state’s failure at Upper Big Branch does not stop with safety issues inside the mine. The inability to protect the lives of miners is also a political failure – a failure by the state’s government to nurture and support strict safety standards for coal miners. If miners’ lives are to be safeguarded, the cozy relationship between high-ranking government officials and the coal industry must change, as must the relationship between the enforcement agency and the industry it regulates” (UBB GIIP 89).
Indeed, “…Massey is equally well known for causing incalculable damage to mountains, streams, and air in the coalfields; creating health risks for coalfield residents by polluting streams, injecting slurry into the ground and failing to control coal waste dams and dust emissions from processing plants; using vast amounts of money to influence the political system; and, battling government regulation regarding safety in the coal mines and environmental safeguards for communities” (92). Indeed, for the first decade of this century, Massey had the distinction of having the worst mine safety record in the United States. The 29 killed at UBB brought the company’s total deaths to 54 for the decade.
Even at the time of the disaster, Massey employees seemed to delay in their response. Though the explosion occurred just after 3 p.m., the first call for an ambulance was not made until nearly 4:30. Initially, the mine dispatcher called company officials, who in turn activated their own rescue teams and notified state and federal officials. It was not until the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 13 that all of the miners’ bodies had been recovered.
Blaming it on God
Nobody speaks to the corporate culture which allowed this preventable disaster to occur better than Blankenship. Holding to the theory put forth by Massey that high levels of methane or natural gas just suddenly burst in through the mine’s floor (despite evidence to the contrary), he coldly said to the National Press Club on July 22, 2010 – less than three months following the accident, “The politicians will tell you we’re going to do something so this never happens again. You won’t hear me say that. Because I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do. Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable, just as other accidents in society” (UBB GIIP 70). Yet, 94 years previously, Coal Age magazine asserted, “The next time you are about to say, ‘Accidents will happen,’ stop and think first; then you won’t say it. Only weaklings and incompetents evade responsibilities in this age of industrial safety and efficiency” (UBB GIPP 74).
Conclusion – ‘A Completely Predictable Result’
A little more than a year after the UBB disaster, Massey Energy was sold to coal giant Alpha Natural Resources. Massey no longer exists, at least by that name. However, the inclusion of former Massey COO Chris Adkins in the new company – responsible for of all things, safety – calls into question if the corporate culture that drove Massey to put profits before people has changed with the sale. Blankenship retired, unapologetic and landing softly under his multi-million dollar golden parachute.
While he enjoys retirement, the families of 29 men continue to suffer the consequences of the deaths of their loved ones. Their experience will last a lifetime; the millions they are receiving for their deceased family members is an insult as much as compensation. Hence, Blankenship’s comments that the disaster was God’s fault is insulting not only to the families, but to God. As the GIIP report concluded, “…we can mine coal safely. Disasters are not an inevitable part of the mining cycle. There are not preordained numbers of miners who have to perish to produce the nation’s energy. While we are all in God’s hands, the safety and health of our miners is also in the hands of the mining community” (UBB GIPP 107)
Ultimately, the GIIP issued 11 findings and 52 recommendations to implement them. To a large extent, it is like a recurring nightmare. After each disaster, findings and recommendations are issued. Then, a year or few later, another report is issued in response to yet another disaster. As important at the multiple findings and recommendations are, the first two findings – if not addressed – will lead to more deaths. The first finding is that the disaster was man-made and preventable; the second finding states that the explosion occurred because of the failure of basic safety practices. “The April 5, 2010 explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.” (108)
Anticipating that their findings may be ignored, the GIIP – led by J. Davit McAteer, who has devoted his life to improving coal mining safety – placed the solution squarely where it belongs. “Our recommendations are of no value unless adopted by industry and governments for it is only then that miners will have a better chance to return home safe and sound to their families each day….we as a nation and the mining industry have shown that we know how to mine safely. We are obliged to do that.” (3)
Hence, the challenge is to develop mitigation efforts that allow for reasonable compromise. While honoring the work of the coal miner, we must also identify people and companies responsible for devastating the land of West Virginia without regard for human dignity and the care of creation, and oppose their willingness to accept compromises in safety. We must be relentless in educating ourselves about this issue; and, we must demonstrate our commitment by limiting our consumerism and energy use.
© Michael Barrick, 2014.
David McAteer, Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster (Morgantown, W.Va: West Virginia University Press, 2007).
Upper Big Branch: The April 5, 2010 explosion: a failure of basic coal mine safety practices (Shepherdstown, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, May 2011).
The Sago Mine Disaster: A preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III (Buckhannon, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, July 2006).