Worker Memorial Day
Witnesses told a Senate panel Tuesday that Massey Energy kept a West Virginia mine open by working loopholes in the system to avoid safety shutdowns.
Massey was able to “game the system” using the appeals process to keep the Upper Big Branch mine open even though it had been cited 515 times last year for safety violations and 124 times this year.
An April 5 explosion killed 29 miners, the worst mine disaster in 40 years.
Because of a backlog of 16,000 safety violation appeals, the federal government can shut down a mine for only a short period of time while an appeal is underway. An appeal can take up to 600 days which allows the mines to stay open and continue operating, despite safety concerns.
Miners were reportedly, “scared to death” to report to work. Union members said Massey knew the mines were unsafe but intimidated miners who complained about the working conditions.
"You just about have to have an explosion occur" to force a closure for imminent safety violations, Joe Main, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Families of the miners attended the hearing and held up photos of their loved ones. While no one from Massey attended the hearing, a representative from the National Mining Association, an industry group, assured the panel that current regulations are adequate to insure safety.
Bruce Watzman, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association (NMA), emphasized in his testimony, "That is the responsibility American mining owes all who work in our mines, and it is the debt we owe those who perished at the Upper Big Branch Mine."
"Unfortunately, the penalties for breaking the law are often so minimal that employers can dismiss them as simply the cost of doing business," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the committee.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), holding up a 26-page sheet of citations found at the Upper Big Branch mine since January 2009, called for "an end to the loopholes in the law that allow some mines to put profits over safety."
Massey was fined $1.24 million for safety violations in January 2009, but paid only $180,000 because the penalty is not due until all of the appeals are exhausted.
The hearing was held on the eve of Worker Memorial Day, commemorated each April 28 to remember miners injured or killed on the job each year. #