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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Don Blankenship & Massey Energy Should Be Sued For Miners' Deaths

"You're Liable to Get Shot!"

The company is well known in West Virginia, in part because CEO Don Blankenship grew to become a fixture in state politics, doling out thousands of dollars to candidates he favored – most of them Republicans. In 2004, he spent millions on advertising that attacked a West Virginia state Supreme Court justice, leading to the election of challenger Brent Benjamin.

Massey had a $70 million case before the state Supreme Court and, once elected, Benjamin made the controversial decision not to recuse himself because of Blankenship's support of him and to hear arguments anyway. Another member of the court hearing the case was Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard.

He later recused himself after photographs surfaced showing that he vacationed with Blankenship in the French Riviera.

When an ABC News reporter tried to interview Blankenship about the possible conflicts in the parking lot of a Massey Energy office in Belfry, Ky., Blankenship became agitated.

"If you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're liable to get shot," Blankenship told the reporter before grabbing his camera.

Blankenship later told the Charleston Daily Mail he couldn't recall making any threats. "Quite frankly, I don't know what I said except that I know I'm never loud, vulgar or rude to strangers," he said.

The conflicts surrounding the state Supreme Court saga triggered a cascade of changes, including a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that called on judges to recuse themselves when major donors come before them in court, and a vote by the West Virginia legislature to adopt public financing of judicial campaigns.

4 Missing West Virginia Miners Found Dead

Days of rescue efforts came to a grim end after crews found the bodies of four miners who had been missing since an explosion almost a week ago in a West Virginia mine, authorities said early Saturday.

"We did not receive the miracle we prayed for," said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. "This journey has ended and now the healing will start."

Authorities first notified the families of the four miners about their fate before revealing it to the media.

The death toll from Monday's blast at the Upper Big Branch mine now stands at 29, making it the worst mining disaster in the United States in nearly four decades.

On Friday, crews had reached a refuge chamber that had not been used, but the bad air forced them to evacuate before they reached the second chamber.

The airtight chambers were stocked with enough food, water and air to keep 15 miners alive for four days, but Manchin said none of the chambers had been deployed.

Rescue efforts have now turned to the difficult task of recovery, said Kevin Stricklin, of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Of the 29 dead, the bodies of 22 still remain inside the mine. Stricklin said most of them will have to be hand-carried out because of the lack of equipment.

"It's hard to turn a rescue into a recovery with the same group of people," he said.

As days of rescue came to an end, funerals were held Friday for some of the seven dead whose bodies have been removed from the mine.

At the funeral for Benny Willingham, the Rev. Gary Pollard said the 61-year-old miner had three loves in life: God, his family and his job. "He loved God so much that every day was a holiday, every meal was a buffet," Pollard said at Mullens Pentecostal Holiness Church in Mullens.

Willingham, who was married for 33 years, was devoted to his church, Pollard said, and had been a Christian for 19 years. And though Willingham had been set to retire soon, Pollard said he didn't know whether retirement would have suited him: He loved the work.

Three other funerals were held Friday and one is set for Saturday.

The cause of Monday's blast is unknown, and state and federal officials have pledged a full investigation.

The explosion has prompted renewed questions about mine safety. Obama said Friday that "it's clear more needs to be done" to improve mine safety.

He will meet next week with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and a Mine Safety and Health Administration official to hear their initial assessment of the cause of the blast and their recommendations on steps the federal government should take to improve safety.

Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine, said in a statement released Friday that it will conduct "extensive" reviews of the mine accident "to ensure that a similar incident doesn't happen again."

It said the mine has had less than one violation per day in inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration and added that that rate is "consistent with national averages."

"Most of the citations issued by MSHA to [Upper Big Branch] in the last year were resolved on the same day they were issued," it said. "The safety of our members has been and will continue to be our top priority every day."

One of the unaccounted-for miners and 18 of the dead were working in an area where long wall cutting was taking place. The technique uses a large grinder to extract the coal and creates large amounts of coal dust and methane, both of which are explosive.

Manchin said that even though it's not clear what caused the explosion, there needs to be a focus on better ventilation and sensors to alert mine personnel when gas levels become dangerous.

"There was no way to protect them against this," he said. "You just have to prevent it and make sure it doesn't happen again."

The West Virginia blast was the worst mining disaster since 1972 when 91 miners were killed in a fire at the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho.

West Virginia Mine EXPLOSION: Massey Energy Mine Had Scores Of Safety Citations

A huge underground explosion blamed on methane gas killed 25 coal miners in the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than two decades.

Four others were missing Tuesday, their chances of survival dimming as rescuers were held back by poison gases that accumulated near the blast site, about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine.

The mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston, has a significant history of safety violations, including 57 infractions just last month for (among other things) not properly ventilating the highly combustible methane.

ABC News reported:

The federal records catalog the problems at the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by the Performance Coal Company. They show the company was fighting many of the steepest fines, or simply refusing to pay them. Performance is a subsidiary of Massey Energy.

The nation's sixth biggest mining company by production, Massey Energy took in $24 million in net income in the fourth quarter of 2009. The company paid what was then the largest financial settlement in the history of the coal industry for the 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine, also in West Virginia. The fire trapped 12 miners. Two suffocated as they looked for a way to escape. Aracoma later admitted in a plea agreement that two permanent ventilation controls had been removed in 2005 and not replaced, according to published reports.

Rescuers on Tuesday had to bulldoze an access road above it so they could begin drilling three shafts over 1,000 feet each to release methane and carbon monoxide that chased them from the mine after the blast Monday afternoon, Gov. Joe Manchin said at an early morning news briefing Tuesday. Drilling and ensuring rescuers can safely go in could take up to 12 hours, meaning the search was unlikely to resume before 6 p.m. Tuesday.

"It's going to be a long day and we're not going to have a lot of information until we can get the first hole through," Manchin said.

It had already been a long day for grieving relatives, some angry because they found out their loved ones were among the dead from government officials or a company Web site, not from Massey Energy executives.

"They're supposed to be a big company," said Michelle McKinney, whose father, 62-year-old Benny R. Willingham, died in the blast. She found out from a local official at a school near the mine. "These guys, they took a chance every day to work and make them big. And they couldn't even call us."

McKinney said her husband is a miner too and her 16-year-old son doesn't want him to go back to work. Willingham, who had mined for 30 years, the last 17 with Massey, was just five weeks from retiring and planned to take his wife on a cruise to the Virgin Islands next month.

"Benny was the type – he probably wouldn't have stayed retired long," said his sister-in-law, Sheila Prillaman said. "He wasn't much of a homebody."

Meanwhile, others waited for word about missing loved ones. Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the situation looked grim.

"All we have left is hope, and we're going to continue to do what we can," he said.

Officials hoped the four miners still unaccounted for were able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days, but rescue teams checked one of two such chambers nearby and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented teams from reaching other chambers, officials said.

A total of 31 miners were in the area during a shift change when the explosion rocked the mine.

"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up, you couldn't hear and the next thing you know, it's just like you're just right in the middle of a tornado," miner Steve Smith, who heard the explosion but was able to escape, told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Some of those killed may have died in the blast and others when they breathed in the gas-filled air, Stricklin said. Eleven bodies had been recovered and identified, but the other 14 have not. Names weren't released publicly, but Manchin said three of the dead are members of the same family.

He said investigators still don't know what ignited the blast, but methane likely played a part.

The death toll is the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most killed in a U.S. mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co., in Hyden, Ky.

"There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt, or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of New Life Assembly, a church near the southern West Virginia mine. "It's not something you dread every day, but there's always that danger. But for this area, it's the only way you're going to make a living."

Though the situation looked bleak, Manchin said miracles can happen and pointed to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12. Crews found miner Randal McCloy Jr. alive after he was trapped for more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon monoxide.

In Monday's blast, nine miners were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the mine's long shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, Stricklin said.

They found seven workers dead. Others were hurt or missing about a mile and a half inside the mine, though there was some confusion over how many. Others made it out.

Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee. It ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.

In the past year, federal inspectors fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch.

ABC News has also documented the highly controversial relationship between Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and a local judge who has refused to recuse himself from cases involving Massey Energy despite long fundraising and personal ties between the two men. In 2004, Blankenship physically resisted an ABC reporter trying to ask him about the matter.

Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining, and federal records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas into the Upper Big Branch mine every 24 hours, which is a large amount, said Dennis O'Dell, health and safety director for the United Mine Workers labor union.

In mines, giant fans are used to keep the colorless, odorless gas concentrations below certain levels. If concentrations are allowed to build up, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter, as at the Sago mine, also in West Virginia.

Since then, federal and state regulators have required mine operators to store extra oxygen supplies. Upper Big Branch uses containers that can generate about an hour of breathable air, and all miners carry a container on their belts besides the stockpiles inside the mine. Upper Big Branch has had three other fatalities in the last dozen years.

Upper Big Branch has 19 openings and roughly 7-foot ceilings. Inside, it's crisscrossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and equipment. It is located in a mine-laced swath of Raleigh and Boone counties that is the heart of West Virginia's coal country.

The seam produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees.

"The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate this tragedy, and take action," U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement. "Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood."

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Sources: ABC News, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, Huffington Post, Google Maps

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