November 11, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

A wrongful-death lawsuit related to Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma coal mine commenced yesterday in West Virginia courthouse.  Mr. Donald Bragg, 33, and Mr. Elvis Hatfield, 46, died in a mine fire on January 19, 2006.  According to an Associated Press account (here) the widows’ attorney Bruce Stanley told the jury that Massey Energy’s CEO, Don Blankenship urged the mine’s managers to focus on production, instead of maintenance, dust control or other non-production matters.

“They died over money,” Stanley said.

Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette reports here that the company’s attorneys: 

“called the deaths at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine ‘a tragedy,’ but urged jurors not to blame Blankenship or the companies.  ‘There is no question there were mistakes, but there is also no question that those mistakes were not Don Blankenship’s.'”

The AP’s version adds this from the company attorney:

“Mistakes were made, poor decisions were made. There’s no question that things could have been done better and in hindsight things could have been done differently.  Horrible accident. Terrible tragedy. Bad decisions. Mistakes made that led up to it, but deliberate intent – you will not find evidence of that.”

The Charleston Gazette’s Ward elaborates on the arguments made on behalf of the widows:

“..a similar conveyor belt fire [occurred] at Aracoma less than a month before the fatal Jan. 19 blaze. …[And] a critical missing stopping had been intentionally removed two months before that, to make it easier to set up a new electrical installation underground.  …Aracoma was behind schedule on production and revenues, and the mine management was under increasing pressure – especially from Blankenship – to focus on moving more coal.”

Stanley showed jurors a series of memos in which he said Blankenship involved himself in ‘day to day decisions’ about how the Aracoma Mine would be run, including an October 2005 note in which Blankenship told mine managers to ignore anyone who tells them their job is to do anything except ‘run coal.’

A special Investigation of the Aracoma Alma mine fire and deaths was completed for the West Virginia Governor in November 2006 (pdf here).  It explained how the mine fire itself was not prevented, how efforts to extinguish the fire were hampered because of inadequate mine maps and because the water supply had been turned off!

As a result of federal MSHA’s investigation, Massey Energy was assessed a $1.5 million penalty, for 25 violations of health and safety standards.  21 of the 25 violations were classifed as ”reckless disregard,” the most severe category of negligence under MSHA’s penalty structure.  

The company is contesting most, if not all, of the citations.  The case was also referred by MSHA to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston, WV for possible criminal violations.

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