On February 13, 2010, the management at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine ordered an electrician to disable a methane alarm that kept going off, according to NPR. On April 6, a methane explosion ripped through the mine, killing 29 West Virginia coal miners in the worst mine disaster in decades.
Why did Massey management want the alarm turned off? Because the alarm was detecting dangerous levels of methane, and when the alarm sounds, mining must stop until methane returns to acceptable levels. So instead of fixing the problem of dangerous levels of methane, Massey decided to turn off the alarm and ignore the methane.
This is the equivalent of being annoyed that your fire alarm is going off, so you turn it off; then your house burns down and kills you and almost everyone inside.
The most damning part of the story is the reason given by a witness in the mine: the alarm was disabled so they “could continue to run coal.”
“Everybody was getting mad because the continuous miner kept shutting off because there was methane,” recalls Ricky Lee Campbell, a 24-year-old coal shuttle driver and roof bolter who witnessed the incident. “So, they shut the section down and the electrician got into the methane detector box and rewired it so we could continue to run coal.“
Sound familiar? It should.
In late 2005, Blankenship issued a memo to company employees instructing supervisers to “ignore” any directive except to “run coal,” because “coal pays the bills.” That apparently included safety measures to protect the workers who help Blankenship “pay the bills.”
Time for Don Blankenship to go to jail.