The civil suit, filed in a Federal District Court in West Virginia, describes a "broad refusal" by the company, Massey Energy, to turn over documents concerning management authority, ventilation, previous fires, construction projects and other matters at the Aracoma mine near Melville, W.Va.Some observers believe that MSHA has created the problem itself:
"This is the first time the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been faced with a broad refusal by a mine operator to provide relevant documents in an investigation and, subsequently, the first time that this kind of civil action against a mine operator has been necessary," said David G. Dye, the agency's acting administrator. "The goal of a mine accident investigation is to determine the cause of the accident and whether the mine operator was complying with the law."
Tony Oppegard, a former top official with the Mine Safety and Health Administration and a former prosecutor of mine-safety violations in Kentucky, added that the bigger problem was that the agency had so far chosen to keep its investigation into the Aracoma fire private and voluntary.Massey has an "interesting" history in the workplace safety and environment area. First, there's the case of Jack Spadaro, former superintendent of MSHA's National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va -- and whistleblower -- who was fired by MSHA political appointees in retaliation for uncovering of the fact that Martin County Coal (owned by Massey Energy) knew about problems that eventually resulted in a massive toxic coal slurry spill -- "the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Rather than convening a public hearing which would grant them power to issue subpoenas," Mr. Oppegard said, "they have opted to conduct this in voluntary fashion, and therefore they are struggling to force the company to cooperate."
Last October, the Appalachian News Express released a memo from Massey Energy president Don Blankenship that told all of the company's deep mine superintendents to focus only on coal production:
If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e. - build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.A week later Massey sent out another memo saying "nevermind," safety is really the first priority.
And finally, Massey is the company that employed Richard Stickler, President Bush's nominee to head MSHA. Stickler's nomination is in deep trouble in the Senate.
More mine safety stories here.