Massey Energy: Bad Company or Mining as Usual?

An explosion killed 25 miners last night at a Massey Energy mine in Montcoal, West Virgina. The mining accident was one of the deadliest in recent history. A buildup of natural gas in an unventilated section of the mine, sparked by a transportation vehicle, is believed to have caused the explosion. The New York Times has more:

“All we know now is, this is an awful disaster,” Representative Nick J. Rahall II said as he arrived at the mine site, which is in his district. “This is the second major disaster at a Massey site in recent years, and something needs to be done.”

For at least six of the past 10 years, federal records indicate, the Upper Big Branch mine has recorded an injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations. The records also show that the mine had 458 violations in 2009, with a total of $897,325 in safety penalties assessed against it last year. It has paid $168,393 in safety penalties. Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said the Upper Big Branch mine was the site of two fatalities in the previous 10 years.

“Massey’s commitment to safety has long been questioned in the coalfields,” said Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and mine safety advocate from Kentucky. Those concerns were heightened in 2006 when an internal memo written by Mr. Blankenship became public. In the memo, Mr. Blankenship instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.

“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” he wrote.

Regulators overhauled mining safety laws in 2006, according the Times. The legal reform came after a series of fatal accidents brought criminal charges against Massey.

Coal mining is intrinsically dangerous. It’s difficult to say whether this accident could have been prevented in any mine. But Massey’s poor record, combined with Blankenship’s record of indifference, indicates a systemic problem. From the looks of it, this is more a case of bad company than mining as usual.