Massey miner: ‘I felt like I was working for the Gestapo’

Stanley Stewart, right, testifies alongside relatives of victims of the Upper Big Branch explosion before the House Education and Labor Committee in Beckley, W.Va., on Monday. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/ZUMApress.com)

A coal miner working at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine when it exploded last month, killing 29 colleagues, described the operation this week as “a ticking time bomb,” where the management valued production over safety and workers didn’t protest for fear of being fired.

“The ventilation system they had didn’t work,” said Stanley “Goose” Stewart, a 15-year veteran of the UBB mine who was 300 feet underground when the blast occurred. “With no air moving it gave me the feeling that area was a ticking time bomb.”

There was plenty of warning that the conditions in the UBB mine were dangerous, Stewart told House lawmakers. The mine had experienced “at least two fireballs” prior to the April 5 blast, he said, suggesting not only that the vent systems were faulty, but that there were also problems with the mine’s methane sensors.

“How could methane build up to that point where a fireball could start?” he asked during a field hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee in Beckley, W.Va., near the site of the UBB blast.

The allegations — which are strikingly similar to those coming from a growing number of Massey workers, both veterans and active miners — arrive just four days after Don Blankenship, Massey’s bellicose CEO, told Senate Democrats that miner safety is the company’s top priority.

“Massey does not place profits over safety,” Blankenship testified before the Senate Appropriations Labor Subcommittee last Thursday. “We never have and we never will. Period.”

Although the UBB mine had been cited for safety violations more than 600 times since the start of 2009, Blankenship argued that the mine’s safety history is irrelevant because “abatement [of hazards] is mandatory.”

“At Massey, we always fix the problem,” he said, “even if we disagree with the penalty.”

But Stewart, along with a number of relatives of UBB victims, had a dramatically different story, telling lawmakers that Massey managers frequently cut corners to maximize production, even when it came at the expense of the workers’ safety.

Steve Morgan, for instance, father of 21-year-old Adam Morgan, who was killed during the blast, testified that it was common for workers in UBB to pull down the ventilation curtains — the plastic sheets that direct the flow of fresh air and prevent methane gas from accumulating — because those curtains can get in the way of heavy equipment, slowing down production.

“Ventilation was so bad he was sent home early several times, including once about a week before the explosion because they weren’t getting enough air,” Morgan said.

Gary Quarles, a Massey miner whose son, Gary Wayne, was also a victim of the UBB disaster, told lawmakers that Massey foremen in the mines are warned when inspectors arrive on the site — a system lending workers some time to get the place cleaned up before the inspectors get underground. “When the word goes out,” Quarles said, “all effort is made to correct any deficiencies or direct the inspector’s attention away from any deficiencies.”

And Stewart said that his crew was once asked to switch out a ventilation system without evacuating the affected section of the mine, as required by law. “I’m not sure MSHA was aware of the whole situation,” he said, referring to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Workers didn’t complain, Stewart said, because “we knew that we’d be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us” — a message echoed by most of the other witnesses to Monday’s hearing.

As a sign of how highly Massey values efficiency, UBB miners were denied vacation last summer after they failed to meet production targets, Stewart said.

“I felt like I was working for the Gestapo at times,” he said. “We did some things right, but were forced to do some things wrong.”

If the allegations were isolated, they might be easy to ignore. But there’s a pattern emerging from all the scrutiny of Massey that’s followed last month’s disaster. Chuck Nelson, another former Massey miner who spoke with TWI from his West Virginia home last month, said the trends are hardly limited to the UBB mine.

“I worked at six different Massey mines and every single one of ‘em operated the same way,” said Nelson, who now volunteers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Massey, which was quick to issue a statement following last week’s Senate hearing, has so far been silent in the face of the more recent allegations.

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Mike Lillis

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