Sen. Byrd Rebukes Massey Energy Over Coal Mine Disaster, Questions Safety Practices

'The More I Learn About the Extent of These Violations, the Angrier I Get'

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Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a longtime supporter of Appalachia’s coal miners, called for a thorough reexamination of the United States’ mine safety laws today. He also issued a sharp rebuke of Massey Energy and its CEO, Don Blankenship, for their handling of safety in the Upper Big Branch mine.

Twenty-five miners died there after an explosion this week, and four others were still missing this morning.

In particular, Byrd cited the long list of safety violations at the West Virginia mine. Records from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show dozens of warnings and fines issued at Upper Big Branch mine every month, some citing the same safety issues week after week.

“It is infuriating that in this day and age, and in this country, that such a disaster could still happen. I am sick. I am saddened and I am angry. We have the laws. We have the resources. These tragedies, on this scale, should no longer be happening,” Byrd writes.

“The more I learn about the extent of these violations by Massey at the Upper Big Branch Mine alone,” he writes, “the angrier I get.”

In his statement, Byrd calls for federal investigations to determine how the laws can be strengthened to protect the nation’s coal miners. In particular, he urges Congress and federal regulators to scrutinize Massey Energy’s practices and procedures.



Following is Sen. Robert Byrd’s statement in full:

While the situation on the ground this morning is not as encouraging as we had hoped, my prayers continue for those who have lost their loved ones, and for the safe return of the four missing miners and those mine rescue team members who are also risking their lives to save their fellow West Virginians.

It is infuriating that in this day and age, and in this country, that such a disaster could still happen. I am sick. I am saddened and I am angry. We have the laws. We have the resources. These tragedies, on this scale, should no longer be happening.

Once we learn the cause of this disaster and investigations are completed whether it is wrongdoing by Massey, lack of enforcement by MSHA, or inadequacies with the mine health and safety laws, including the MINER Act of 2006, action will need to be taken.

Legislative Changes

It is premature to say what changes in laws or regulations may be needed until the investigation is underway. But I have called for a reexamination of the health and safety laws that have been put into place and what more may need to be done to avoid future loss of life.

I have received a commitment from Senator Tom Harkin, who is a true friend of the coal miner, and who chairs both the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (LHHS), that a Senate hearing will occur on this overwhelming mining disaster. This will be in addition to the hearings in the House of Representatives that were requested by my West Virginia colleague, Congressman Nick J. Rahall. The House hearings will occur in the House Education and Labor Committee.

Massey Response

This has been one of Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s comments following this tragic mining disaster: “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process. There are violations at every coal mine in America, and (the Upper Big Branch Mine) was a mine that had violations.”

Well for this Senator, the more I learn about the extent of these violations by Massey at the Upper Big Branch Mine alone, the angrier I get. 57 citations in the month of March alone! Closed over 60 times during the past two years to correct problems!

To me, one thing is clear — for a company that has had this number of violations at just one coal mine — one must seriously begin to question the practices and procedures of this particular coal company and it needs the most serious scrutiny from the Congress and the federal regulators.

Mine Safety and Health Administration Funding

Through my efforts as the senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have been able to increase funding for coal enforcement from $117 million in Fiscal Year 2006, to $159 million in Fiscal Year 2010 — a 36 percent increase. In June 2006, the Senate Appropriations Committee directed MSHA to hire 170 new coal inspectors. Since then, with the funding I have secured, MSHA has hired 444 coal enforcement personnel, including 119 in West Virginia — increasing the number of inspectors and specialists from 568 in January 2006, to 748 in March 2010. I will continue to examine the funding needs of MSHA as this investigation moves forward.

Media reports have stated that “Safety officials warned Congress three months ago that the backlog of violations could undermine a crackdown on repeat offenders. A backlog of some 82,000 violations and $210 million in contested penalties is pending before a review commission. In 2009, companies protested roughly two-thirds of the $141 million in penalties assessed by federal regulators.”

I secured additional funding in the Fiscal Year 2010 appropriations bill for the Solicitor of Labor and Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC) to help litigate the fines. President Obama’s budget request for FY 2011 builds on that funding, and I am currently examining whether more funding is needed to help shorten the amount of time to litigate these fines.

The FMSHRC budget increased by $1.7 million in FY 2010 and the Solicitor budget has increased by $28 million in last two years. And at my request, the Appropriations Committee has urged the Department of Labor to use additional resources to litigate mine safety penalties.

In addition, I have secured $4 million in the last two years to increase spot inspections to enforce dust control limits. This is necessary to reduce the risk of explosions and black lung.

Marsh Fork Elementary School

Marsh Fork Elementary School sits at the foot of a Massey Energy mountaintop mining site which includes a pond that holds back hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic coal slurry. Since the Upper Big Branch Mine site is in close proximity to the Massey Energy mountaintop mining site, I inquired as to whether the stability of the impoundment lot could have been compromised as a result of the mine explosion.

According to information I received from the Department of Labor, the slurry impoundment, located above the Marsh Fork Elementary School, was inspected on Wednesday and determined by inspectors to “be fine.”


UPDATE (April 10): The bodies of the four missing miners were discovered early Saturday inside the Upper Big Branch mine, raising the death toll from the explosion to 29. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970, when an explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.


See also:

Coal Mine Where 25 Died Had Been Fined Repeatedly for Safety Violations

Sen. Byrd: Rigid Mindsets Pose Greatest Threat to Coal’s Future

2 More Utilities Retiring Aging Coal Plants in Wake of Health Report