Massey Energy Co., owner of the West Virginia mine where 29 workers died in a 2010 blast, was cited by U.S. regulators for more than two dozen safety violations, including inadequate ventilation, at a mine run by Inman Energy.
Conditions and the response of officials at the Randolph Mine in Boone County, West Virginia, were “nothing short of outrageous,” Joseph Main, head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in a statement yesterday. MSHA issued 20 orders requiring the company to remove workers from the mine and five citations.
Massey, which is being acquired by Alpha Natural Resources Inc., hasn’t improved safety since the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch in Montcoal, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years, the agency said. MSHA stepped up inspections of underground mines after the blast.
The Randolph Mine violations were uncovered April 29 on a surprise search by six agency officials. Inspectors found miners coated in coal dust and combustible material, putting workers “at serious risk to the threat of fire, explosion and black lung,” Main said. Ventilation curtains weren’t being used in some areas to protect workers against respiratory diseases, the agency said.
“There was dust everywhere, complete violations of the law,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said today at a hearing on mine safety held by the House Education and Workforce Committee. “If we’re not going to have strong enforcement, then Congress should not write laws, because they are useless if they are not protecting our coal miners.”
Massey, based in Richmond, Virginia, disciplined several individuals after the inspection, and “will take all actions necessary to ensure that our operations comply with the letter of the law,” General Counsel Shane Harvey said in an e-mail.
“We were very disappointed with the results of the inspection,” he said.
Massey had a 1.2 million-ton coal shortfall in the first quarter because of lower productivity at underground mines and difficulty staffing some operations, the company said on May 2. The company had a first-quarter net loss of $7.7 million, or 7 cents a share, compared with profit of $33.6 million, or 39 cents, a year earlier.
Alpha, which is buying Massey in a $7.1 billion transaction, said on April 2 that it received antitrust approvals of U.S. and foreign regulators. The purchase may be completed by June 1, Massey said on May 2.
The Upper Big Branch disaster also is exacting a price for rivals such as International Coal Group Inc. and Patriot Coal Corp., as President Barack Obama’s administration steps up safety inspections and penalties.
The administration has proposed tighter rules that would let regulators close coal mines and penalize the operators that have repeated safety violations.
Legislation giving regulators expanded power failed last year in the Democratic-led House, and Republicans who control the House today said prevention should be a focus.
“Punishment is important, but putting punishment before prevention is not in the best interest of America’s workers,” said Representative Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protection. “Most of the mining industry does the right thing.”
MSHA’s enforcement is “focused on everything but employee personal responsibility and precautions,” Louis Griesemer, spokesman for the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, said in his prepared testimony.
The agency has “become unduly reliant on trying to add regulations” that “will increase bureaucracy, administration and paperwork cost for companies,” Griesemer said. “We cannot regulate our way to zero injury.”
Anthony Bumbico, vice president of safety at Arch Coal Inc., told the committee that “overly prescriptive regulatory requirements can inhibit the ability of companies to respond proactively to health and safety issues.”