In big bold orange letters, the cover of the United Mine Workers of America’s (UMWA) report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster reads “Industrial Homicide.” The union’s 154-page report says:
“Massey Energy must be held accountable for the death of each of the 29 miners. Theirs is not a guilt of omission but rather, based on the facts publicly available, the Union believes that Massey Energy and its management were on notice of and recklessly tolerated mining conditions that were so egregious that the resulting disaster constituted a massive slaughter in the nature of an industrial homicide.”
The UMWA asserts that State or federal prosecutors should be able to hold company officials criminally responsible for the dangerous conditions that led to the miners’ deaths.
Besides chastising the corporate behavior that allowed the hazardous conditions to persist, the UMWA explains the physical environment that led to the disaster:
“…sparking of the shearer bits and bit blocks, aided by missing and ineffective water sprays, a lack of water pressure and inadequate ventilation, ignited a pocket of methane at the tailgate near the longwall. the ignition traveled into the gob where it encountered an explosive methane-air mixture, resulting in an explosion. The explosive forces picked up and suspended float coal dust in the mine atmosphere in sufficient quantities to initiate a massive dust explosion.”
This is largely the same conclusion reached by the WV Governor’s Independent Investigation team (of which I was a member) and MSHA’s preliminary findings. Both the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr., and NPR’s Howard Berkes offer more insight on the UMWA’s report.
At the time of the April 5, 2010 explosion, workers at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine were not represented by the UMWA or any union. But shortly thereafter, at least two UBB employees designated the UMWA as their miners’ representative. The Mine Act and federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulations allow two or more miners to send a simple letter to the agency identifying any person or organization to serve as their representative for inspection, investigation and other purposes of the Act. Although Massey Energy challenged the union’s involvement in the investigation, the UMWA’s designation by the UBB miners was defended by the Labor Department.
This didn’t however give the UMWA access to all aspects of MSHA’s investigation. The union notes it was barred by MSHA from participating in any of the 300+ interviews conducted by federal and state investigators.
“The Union believes the refusal by the Agency to permit the Representative of Miners to participate in the interviews was the wrong decision. Without open and transparent hearings, which MSHA is permitted to conduct under the Mine Act, we have unanswered questions regarding the thoroughness and validity of the investigation. …Likewise, repeated written and verbal requests for transcripts of the testimony have thus far been denied.”
The Labor Department has asserted that hearings in which witnesses are interviewed publicly would potentially impede its investigation and that of the Justice Department.
Perhaps if a prosecutor takes up the UMWA’s call for a trial on charges of industrial homicide, the miners’ families and interested public will have a chance to finally hear the witness testimony.