The situation in Whitesville, West Virginia rapidly deteriorated overnight. The death toll at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine jumped to 25 miners, with four still missing, making it the deadliest mining disaster in 25 years.
The disaster happened when contained methane gas exploded, in the same way as the Sago mine disaster that killed 12 miners in 2006. Rescuers were driven back last night after the combination of methane gas and carbon dioxide threatened their safety. Rescue teams are drilling holes to release the gas, but they likely won’t be able to end actual rescuers into the mine until this evening.
President Obama will speak early this morning, and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis issued a blistering statement this morning promising to that the miners’ deaths “will not be in vain.”
“As we hear of more heartbreak from Whitesville, our thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends, loved ones, neighbors and coworkers. Twenty-five hardworking men died needlessly in a mine yesterday. I pledge that their deaths will not be in vain.
“The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate this tragedy, and take action. Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood.”
While it’s still too early to know specifics, it’s looking increasingly likely that Massey Energy will hold blame for this disaster. Not only has Massey Energy racked up an impressive history of safety violations and millions of dollars in fines, but this particular mine has had 3 deaths in the last 12 years, and doubled its violations in the last year.
In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.
Between 2008 and last year, safety violations at the operation more than doubled and fines issued by MSHA tripled, according to agency records.
One miner was killed at the operation in a July 2003 electrical accident and another in a March 2001 roof fall, according to MSHA records.
In January 2006, two miners died in a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. Eventually, Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 criminal mine safety violations and paid $2.5 million in fines related to that fatal fire.
ABC News delves into the whole dirty history of Massey’s lack of safety:
The West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 25 workers and left another four unaccounted for in the worst mining disaster since 1984 had amassed scores of citations from mining safety officials, including 57 infractions just last month for violations that included repeatedly failing to develop and follow a ventilation plan. The federal records catalog the problems at the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by the Performance Coal Company. They show the company was fighting many of the steepest fines, or simply refusing to pay them. Performance is a subsidiary of Massey Energy.
Another Massey subsidiary agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal and civil fines last year and admitted to willfully violating mandatory safety standards that led to the deaths of two miners. The nation’s sixth biggest mining company by production, Massey Energy took in $24 million in net income in the fourth quarter of 2009. The company paid what was then the largest financial settlement in the history of the coal industry for the 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine, also in West Virginia. The fire trapped 12 miners. Two suffocated as they looked for a way to escape. Aracoma later admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls had been removed in 2005 and not replaced, according to published reports. The two widows of the miners killed in Aracoma were unsatisfied by the plea agreement, telling the judge they believed the company cared more about profits then safety. After the deal, the Massey subsidiary pledged a renewed focus on safety after the fines were levied.
But Bruce Stanley, the attorney who tried the Aracoma Mine accident case, had doubts. He told ABC News Monday there are a lot of similarities between the Aracoma mine and the one involved in this week’s tragedy, and he has concerns about Massey’s checkered track record on safety issues. Data kept by the Mine Safety and Health Administration show the Upper Big Branch mine has suffered three worker fatalities in last 12 years.
“One can only hope that the level of criminal neglect evident at the Aracoma accident was not repeated at the Upper Big Branch mine,” Stanley said Monday night.
Massey’s carelessness is more than evident. It should only be a matter of time before we find out what led to the needless deaths of 25 miners.