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Massey Energy: A Year After Workers Died, the Violations Keep Stacking Up

Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine exploded and killed 29 workers in April 2010. Today, Massey Energy continues to rack up violations because its mines are so unsafe.

The latest string of violations were issued this week after federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials made a surprise inspection of Massey's Randolph mine in West Virginia. They found conditions that put miners at serious risk to the threat of fire, explosion and black lung. You know, just minor stuff.

Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, described the scene as "nothing short of outrageous."

Despite the tragedy at Upper Big Branch last year, and all our efforts to bring mine operators into compliance, some still aren't getting it.
What's so outrageous? A close read of MSHA enforcement papers provides the sorry details.The Randolph mine, owned by Massey has received:
  • 22 previous citations for accumulations of explosive coal dust
  • 31 previous citations in the past two years for improper roof control
  • At least eight workers have been injured at this mine over the past year
  • 15 violations alleging improper accident/injury reporting were issued
What does it take to get a company like Massey Energy to clean up its act? The feds tactic of surprise inspections has led to more violations and fines, but it hasn't actually corrected the problem. For its part, Massey says it has disciplined several people as a result of the inspection. But supervisors and workers have been "disciplined" before and problems continue.

The White House has argued that cases like this prove new mine safety legislation is needed. Really? There's nothing in the current law that could help prevent this?

Of course there is -- the feds just don't seem to keen to use it. The feds could start throwing huge penalties at Massey, as much as $220,000 for each violation. That might get the company's attention. But for some reason MSHA isn't using this enforcement tool, the West Virginia Gazette has previously reported.

After the Obama administration took office in January 2009, MSHA's assessment of flagrant penalties appears to have dropped off significantly, from 70 such assessment in 2008 to 19 each year in 2009 and 2010, according to agency data. So far in 2001, MSHA has issue three flagrant violations to coal operations, data shows.
The feds can use its "pattern of violation" standard, which puts the mine at risk of closure and heavy fines. Unfortunately, mining companies have exploited the hell out of the appeals process. If all else fails, MSHA still has the power to file a federal court injunction against a mine operator. But for some reason, the agency has only used this powerful weapon once in 30 years. The agency used the enforcement tool for the first time in December when it asked a judge to shut down Massey Energy's Freedom mine operation. Maybe MSHA has finally found its cojones.

Photo from Flickr user Brooks Elliott, CC 2.0

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