WASHINGTON — The owner of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 were killed last month in the nation's deadliest mining explosion in decades staunchly defended the mine's safety record during an at times tense Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday on efforts to prevent such disasters.
"Let me state for the record — Massey does not place profits over safety," Don L. Blankenship, the chairman and chief executive of Massey Energy Co., told members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education and related agencies during his first appearance on Capitol Hill since the April 5 explosion. "We never have and we never will."
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who for more than 40 years has been deeply involved in helping write and revise mine safety laws, repeatedly questioned Massey's stance.
"Mr. Blankenship, do I have your attention? We've all read about the number of times Massey mines have been cited for safety violations," Byrd said. "Twenty-nine men are now dead, dead, dead because they went to work that morning."
Blankenship, who has a reputation of going toe to toe with federal regulators, was more subdued in the hearing than when he appeared before television cameras last month in the wake of the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. Still, Blankenship insisted that "Massey Energy does not 'game the system,' as some have insisted. Rather, we are exercising our rights to due process under the system that Congress has put in place."
Last month, President Barack Obama directed federal mine health and safety officials to crack down on coal mines with a pattern of serious safety violations and urged Congress to fix safety laws that are "riddled with loopholes." Those loopholes include the Mine Safety and Health Administration's practice of looking only at so-called final citations over the course of two years — the kind of citations that rarely make it through a lengthy legal gauntlet — when considering whether to shut down a mine.
As a result, mines with a pattern of safety violations are rarely shut down.
Inspectors have cited hundreds of safety violations at Massey coal mines since the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, federal records show. A total of 442 citations and orders were issued to Massey underground mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia from April 5 through the middle of April.
According to a preliminary report ordered by the Obama administration, the April mine blast might have been caused by a preventable buildup of methane gas and coal dust. The preliminary report also found that the citations MSHA issued at Upper Big Branch have been more numerous than average and more serious.
Last year, MSHA issued 48 withdrawal orders at the mine. "The mine's rate for these kinds of violations is nearly 19 times the national rate," the report said.
MSHA and the Justice Department are investigating the explosion to determine if crimes were committed, and the FBI is looking into whether Massey officials tampered with safety devices as well as other issues.
While senators grilled Blankenship Thursday, the House was poised to consider giving its Education and Labor Committee and its investigators the power to force formal depositions in its Massey probe. Members of that committee took the mining industry to task in February for contributing to a backlog of safety cases amid concerns that such practices put miners at risk.
Pushback from mining companies against tougher safety sanctions has created a backlog of roughly 16,000 cases involving 89,000 violations and more than a $195 million in fines, according to Joseph Main, MSHA's director. The sheer volume of these cases has clogged the appeals process and, in some instances, allowed operators to delay paying hefty fines, safety advocates say.
The Obama administration has promised to focus on streamlining and winnowing down numerous appeals of mine violations, which have made it difficult to effectively penalize mining companies, and federal mine safety officials have underscored the need for increased funding to hire more staff.
Massey defends its appeals, saying the percentage of violations appealed at Upper Big Branch is similar to the industry's average. Mine operators counter that a scattershot approach to issuing sanctions, as well as poorly trained inspectors, are causing the appeals backlog.
Federal mining regulators didn't escape the panel's criticism.
"Given the disturbing safety record and reputation of this mine, why oh why oh why did MSHA wait until after the tragedy to launch an inspection blitz of coal mines with a history of (patterns of serious violations)?" Byrd asked Main.
When the MSHA head tried to explain the agency's methods, Byrd repeated the question.
"Senator, the only thing I can say is . . . that's something we'll look at and figure out what did and didn't do," Main said.
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