Saturday, April 7, 2012

Upper Big Branch Mine - 2 years later

Statement from Goose and Mindi Stewart

“First, my wife Mindi and I would like to express our sadness that another family is being impacted by the tragedy of April 5, 2010. We're certain Mr. May's family is suffering tremendous fear and sadness at this time. 

That being said, we would also like to express our gratitude to the Federal Prosecutor and his staff for pursuing justice in this case. Nothing can bring back the wonderful and brave men who were murdered and injured on April 5th and our hearts still go out to the families of those miners. The best outcome of this entire investigation would be the indictments, trials and prosecutions of all those who were responsible for UBB's explosion from the upper Management at UBB up to and including Don Blankenship. 

Everytime an event occurs that has to do with the tragedy at the mine, our family suffers the pain of reliving that horrible day. I ask you to respect our family and our need for privacy. We will not be releasing any further comments regarding this story.”

This message from Goose and Mindi Stewart posted on WSAZ News Channel 3 website on March 29, 2012


Stanley “Goose” Stewart worked 34 years in the coal mine, 15 of those at Upper Big Branch mine.  Goose testified before the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives, during the Hearing held May 24, 2010 in Beckley, West Virginia regarding the  the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy. Goose made the following statement at the Hearing; “There wasn’t no air. It’s hard to ventilate a place when you ain’t got nothing to ventilate it with.  A ticking time bomb because the ventilation system they had didn’t work.”

We are on the 2 year anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy this Easter weekend. For family members, loved ones and all coal field residents  Easter weekend holds a different meaning from the normal festive occasion of Easter egg hunts, beautiful spring dresses and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.  On Monday, April 5 of the 2010 Easter weekend  at approximately 3:02 pm a powerful explosion tore through the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey Energy and operated by its subsidiary Performance Coal Company. The mine was located at the convergence of the Boone and Raleigh Counties in southern West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners were killed and one seriously injured. The blast rocketed through more than 2 miles of underground workings tearing apart everything in its path nearly 1,000 feet beneath the surface of the Coal River.  So, Easter weekend will forever serve as a reminder of the horrible tragedy at UBB.

 Once again Easter weekend is upon us two years later and we have yet another family impacted by the tragedy of the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners were killed and one seriously injured. This is my story written March 29, 2012:

I’m so sad tonight, simply heartbroken that our coalfields have suffered another deadly blow; claimed another casualty.  Is it not enough  we lost 29 coal miners and another one seriously injured on Easter Monday in April 2010 at Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion in Raleigh County, West Virginia owned by Massey Energy.  The latest heartbreaking  news all over the newspapers, internet and television stations is that Gary May, former mine superintendent at Upper Big Branch mine, has entered a guilty plea to conspiracy to prevent MSHA from doing their job.  I don’t want to think of what this may entail—we are family in the coalfields caring and looking out for one another.

This news is too hard to bear.  How can residents of the coalfields comprehend much less accept the possibility that those hired and empowered to provide and enforce a safe work place, to look over our miners, serve as their guardian angels, their underground brothers voluntarily give up that control at the miner’s expense. It was a well known fact the Appalachian coalfield’s native son,  former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, born in Shopover, Kentucky, raised in Delome, West Virginia and a graduate of Matewan High School,  pushed coal production at all costs. He made no bones about that as evidenced in a memo Blankenship sent in October 2005 to all deep mine superintendents,
"If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e. - build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills." Reported in the West Virginia Record.

To make a long story short, after this explosion at Upper Big Branch mine, the worst disaster in the US since 1972, Blankenship, head of the UBB mine operation, retired after almost three decades at Massey. He left practically in the middle of the night. The announcement of Blankenship’s “retirement” came late on a  Friday after the markets closed – a sure-fire sign that the ouster was abrupt and awkward. It came one day after a West Virginia judge ruled against Blankenship’s motion to dismiss  two lawsuits holding him personally responsible for the Upper Big Branch mine explosion.

While family members of the men killed were tossing and turning—grieving in the night over the loss of their loved ones and their painful deaths, in the event Blankenship suffered from any nocturnal unrest, he left the company with enough funds to pay for sleep therapy for a long time.  CBS Money Watch reports Blankenship left with $12 million cash, health insurance including dental, five years' use of an office with secretary, free use of a house and land that formerly were Massey property, and reimbursement of taxes on the free house and land and the title to a1965 blue Chevy truck previously transferred to the company.
Cecil E. Roberts, President of the United Mine Workers of American characterized Blankenship’s  retirement as bringing to a close a long and difficult chapter in the history of the coal industry, one that has all too often been associated with human tragedy.

The small, remote coalfield communities in Appalachia are close knit and Bloomingrose in Boone County, West Virginia where Gary May lives is less than 25 miles from Montcoal, Raleigh County, West Virginia where the Upper Big Branch mine is located. That’s a rock’s throw away. That’s like family.  One of my questions as a life-long resident of the coalfields is; what could Massey Energy run by Don Blankenship possibly offer Gary May to entice him into this web of deceit which led up and ended with the loss of 29 lives. Was it money, threats, power...please, will someone fill in the blanks for us. Did he cross the line from protector of his workers to protector of Massey Energy and CEO Don Blankenship?

According to reports, May has agreed “to be named as an unindicted co-conspirator and unindicted aider and abettor, as appropriate, in subsequent indictments or informations,” and will also appear again before a grand jury. May faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when sentenced on August 9, 2010.  
Five years doesn’t seem that long in comparison to what 29 miners received-death.

 U.S. Attorney for  the Southern District of West Virginia, R. Booth Goodwin, II had the following comments regarding May’s guilty plea, “People who run coal mines have a fundamental obligation to be honest with mine regulators.  When mine operators resort to tricks and deceit to keep government officials in the dark, our mine safety system unravels and miners are put in harm's way. The least we can do for coal miners is protect the integrity of the laws designed to keep them safe" (WSAZ Channel 3 news website)

 Under the conspiracy charge, “May, together with others known and unknown, unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly combined, conspired, confederated, and agreed together with each other to defraud the United States and an agency thereof, to wit, to hamper, hinder, impede, and obstruct by trickery, deceit, and dishonest means, the lawful and legitimate functions of DOL and its agency, MSHA, in the administration and enforcement of mine health and safety laws at UBB,” according to court documents.

May told court officially  that he was responsible for tipping off mine managers when U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors were coming. The person receiving this information-advance notice would conceal and cover up violations of mine health and safety laws to avoid citations that would  be issued. Those involved in the cover up used code phrases to pass the information along to sections of the mine to be inspected.  May stated that he engaged in acts such hanging or rehanging ventilation curtains to direct additional air to the area where an inspection was to take place. He said that if he inspectors were going to take samples of respirable dust, he would rock dust those areas. He admitted to falsifying safety records ordering an employee to omit from the record book conditions of high water that made it unsafe to travel in parts of the mine.  May admitted to telling miners to rewire a methane monitor rewired so a continuous miner would not automatically shut-off when excessive methane was detected.

 CNN reported that in a December report, MSHA found a methane ignition that set off flammable coal dust was the immediate cause of the 2010 explosion, but it also blamed the "unlawful policies and practices" of Massey Energy, which it said "promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety."

It has finally come out that Massey kept two sets of books to mislead federal inspectors and its own workers about hazards in the mine, and had twice as many accidents as it reported to regulators.  MSHA found this company failed to conduct adequate inspections and as intimidated their workers to prevent them from reporting violations. (CNN & AP)

An earlier (state) investigation found the mine lacked adequate ventilation; water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained and failed to function as they should have; and the mining company didn't meet federal and state safety standards for the application of rock dust, a crucial tool in keeping highly volatile coal dust from exploding.

Alpha Natural Resources purchased Massey in 2011 and has agreed to a $209 million settlement to  avoid prosecution.  The deal includes payments of $1.5 million to each family that lost a member in the Upper Big Branch mine. May, became an employee of an Alpha Natural Resources subsidiary following Alpha’s acquisition of Massey Energy last year. May has been placed on administrative leave, according to a company spokesperson

The news of this breakdown in trust is counterproductive to any number of laws proposed or passed to protect the coalminer or any dollar amount paid to family members. I believe it is a necessary insult to equate the loss of a loved one to a dollar amount.  Although a sad commentary, I am interested in seeing how far up the ladder this goes.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General are handling the investigation. Counsel to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Steve Ruby is handling the prosecution.

 After almost two years of investigations by state, federal and independent agencies, pieces of this puzzle are finally coming together. Whether we like what we hear or not, facts are coming out and we can only hope and pray for the dead miners, their families and the family of Gary May and trust our Justice Department to put the pieces together and give  the residents of the coalfields something to live for—that they do matter,  their lives are valuable and that the outside world recognize the dangers of coalmining.

 Men who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch mine:
Carl Calvin Acord
Jason Atkins
Christopher Bell
Gregory Steven Brock
Kenneth Allan Chapman
Robert E. Clark
Cory Thomas Davis
Charles Timothy Davis
Michael Lee Elswick
William Ildon Griffith
Steven Harrah
Edward Dean Jones
Richard K. Lane
William Roosevelt Lynch
Joe Marcum
Ronald Lee Maynor
Nicolas Darrell McCroskey
James E. “Eddie” Mooney
Adam Keith Morgan
Rex L. Mullins
Joshua Scott Napper
Howard D. Payne
Dillard Earl Persinger
Joel R. Price
Gary Wayne Quarles
Deward Allan Scott
Grover Dale Skeens
Benny Ray Willingham
Ricky Workman
And to the man who was seriously injured in the explosion- James Woods