January 24, 2013 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

On April 5, 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia killed 29 miners. Four different investigative bodies reached the same conclusion about the causes of the blast: that mine owner Massey Energy disregarded fundamental safety practices while pursuing profit. (Celeste describes these findings and more in a post published on the second anniversary of the disaster.)

The office of US Attorney Booth Goodwin is prosecuting individuals they found to be involved in criminal mine safety violations at Upper Big Branch. The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reports that former Upper Big Branch Mine superintendent Gary May has been sentenced to 21 months in prison and a $20,000 fine for conspiring to thwart federal mine-safety efforts. Ward writes:

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office was pleased with the sentence, and warned that prosecutors in Southern West Virginia will not tolerate criminal violations of mine safety laws.

“If you put profits and production ahead of mine safety, you will go to jail,” Goodwin told reporters in a press conference after the hearing.

Goodwin said his office’s probe is continuing into a “significant conspiracy” to violate mine safety laws at Massey operations, but declined to say yet if prosecutors believe criminal actions extended into Massey’s executive suite or corporate boardroom.

“We are going to take our investigation where it goes,” Goodwin said. “But at this point, I’m not willing to specify how far that conspiracy went at Massey Energy.”

Mine safety advocates and legal experts have noted that Goodwin’s investigation, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby, is utilizing not just criminal provisions of the nation’s mine safety laws, but also broader criminal conspiracy statutes.

“It’s unprecedented,” said longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration and organized a team that did an independent investigation at Upper Big Branch. “This hasn’t been done in the past.”

The last criminal prosecution of a mine superintendent occurred when McAteer was MSHA chief following the Southmountain Disaster in Virginia in 1992.

Ward also reports that May is cooperating with federal prosecutors in their efforts to prosecute Massey higher-ups.

In other news:

NBC News: Among those killed in the fight with militants who took hostages at an Algerian gas field were 38 foreign workers. The US State Department has confirmed that three US citizens — Victor Lynn Lovelady, Gordon Lee Rowan, and Frederick Buttaccio — were among those killed.

New York Times: National Institutes of Health researchers have found that the brain of former NFL player Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year, showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative condition linked to repeated head trauma (you can also watch a news segment about this at ESPN’s site).

Huffington Post: A new report from the Center for Progressive Reform explores how on-the-job safety and corporate accountability suffer when employers rely heavily on subcontracted temporary workers — a practice that’s common in farming, construction, warehousing, and hotels.

National Council for Occupational Safety and Health: Thirty years after the passage of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, protections for farmworkers are still inadequate.

The Hill: In 2012, 349 military suicides were reported — more than in any previous year on record.


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