BECKLEY, W.Va. — Massey Energy Co. encouraged workers to conceal safety violations from federal inspectors, the families of the 29 people killed last month in an underground explosion at a company coal mine told lawmakers Monday.
When an "inspector comes onto Massey mine property, the code word goes out 'we've got a man on the property,"' Gary Quarles, whose son died in the April 5 blast, said at a congressional hearing in Beckley. "When the word goes out, all effort is made to correct any deficiencies and to direct the inspector's attention away from any deficiencies."
Massey and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration were criticized by relatives in prepared testimony for the House Education and Labor Committee hearing being held about 20 miles from the site of worst mine explosion in 40 years. The families said the company threatened workers who raised safety concerns and faulted the agency for lacking regulatory muscle.
Massey "does not place profits over safety" and doesn't "game the system" to delay enforcement action, Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship told lawmakers last week in Washington. MSHA inspectors had considered the mine to be in "good condition" days before the blast, he said at a May 20 hearing.
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Massey's Upper Big Branch mine, the site of the explosion, received 639 MSHA violations from January 2009 until the accident, according to a Labor Department report. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said the mine's record underscored a need to overhaul regulations.
If "regulators knew the mine was unsafe, why was it allowed to continue to operate?" the Democratic governor said Monday. "We need to ask ourselves: is bureaucracy getting in the way of safety?"
Miners testifying Monday blamed the mine's ventilation system, which let explosive methane build up, for the April 5 blast. Stewart told lawmakers that the Upper Big Branch mine was filled with "red flags," including constant low air and excessive methane where miners work.
"My experience in the mines showed me that the ventilation system they had didn't work," he said. "With so much methane being liberated, and no air moving, it gave me the feeling that area was a ticking time bomb."