Coal Tattoo

Joe Manchin, Jim Justice and coal-mine safety


When coal operator and businessman James C. Justice II announced he had bought The Greenbrier resort, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin issued a statement:

“I am so pleased and proud that Jim Justice has agreed to purchase The Greenbrier. He is a true West Virginian who is committed to community service. He’s also a successful businessman who I am sure will put his heart and soul and expertise to work to ensure that The Greenbrier will remain a premier resort that continues to draw people from around the world and makes every West Virginian proud.

“Congratulations to Jim and all the good employees and the residents of Greenbrier County who truly make this resort special.”

You have to wonder if Manchin ever gets updates from Ronald Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

If he did, Manchin might recognize the photo I’ve posted above. It’s the truck that Danny L. Jones, 38, of Bradshaw, was driving when he died at one of Justice’s mines back on Aug. 22, 2008.

Jones was working for B & L Trucking, a subcontractor that was hauling coal to the Keystone Service Industries’ preparation plant, an operation of Justice’s Bluestone Coal Corp. in McDowell County. Jones was killed when he apparently lost control of the truck as it went down a hill on the Pumpking Patch haulroad near Burke Mountain.

Wooten’s state investigators found that the truck was riddled with mechanical problems that led to Jones’ death. They cited violations related to the trucks’ brakes, the lack of a seat belt and disconnected engine shutdown controls. They also found the truck’s cab “was in very poor condition and highly unstable relative to multiple holes, cracks and rust in numerous place, including cab floor board.” State investigators also reported that there was no record that the company examined the truck for defects before it was used.

I thought about this yesterday when I reporting a story about how Justice’s companies ran up more than $1 million in unpaid fines for federal mine safety and health violations. The company is among the worst offenders in terms of not paying the fines it accumulates, according to Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News.

As one top MSHA official said in my story:

… The operator’s conduct in this case is part of an overall pattern of carelessness in ensuring that penalty assessments are timely contested or paid.

On top of that, in June 2008, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration sought to step up enforcement on the company, citing a “pattern of violations” at Justice’s Double Bonus Coal Co.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran an incredibly positive profile of Justice,  with the headline, “Greenbrier’s new owner successful in many arenas.” It included some more quotes from Manchin:

Last Friday, Gov. Joe Manchin described Justice as “a great humanitarian,” saying Justice “has a heart greater than all outdoors. He wants to help everyone.”

My buddy Paul Nyden here at the Gazette has written about Justice before, in relation to coal operators that didn’t pay their workers’ compensation premiums. Some of that was recounted in business editor Eric Eyre’s story about Justice’s purchase of The Greenbrier:

In December 1996, Bluestone Coal was the defendant in the first trial scheduled for about 20 coal companies who had not paid Workers’ Compensation premiums for miners employed by their contractors.

After years of legal disputes, the cases against Bluestone and several other coal companies were settled in 2002, for a total of more than $50 million.

Bluestone Coal paid $5.1 million in premiums that its contractors had never paid to the Bureau of Employment Programs. The out-of-court settlement forgave $15.7 million in interest that Bluestone’s contractors had accumulated.

Bluestone retained about 75 different contractors to operate its mines between 1977 and 2002. About 50 of them went bankrupt or disappeared.

And, Justice’s Double Bonus Coal Co. was the first company to be hit with the mandatory $100,000 fine that Manchin’s administration put in place after the Sago Mine disaster for not reporting  major mining accidents within 15 minutes. (Though that penalty was later vacated by an appeals aboard)

Yesterday was the first time I ever talked to Justice, and he was a pretty nice fellow to chat with. He answered all my questions, and called back after checking a few details with some of his staff. Justice even offered up to me some new information: That his company is paying off a $1.6 million pollution settlement with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Justice was disappointed that I was looking into his unpaid safety fines, saying that his purchase of The Greenbrier was “a great day for West Virginia” that I was unfairly trying to taint. But it seemed to me that Justice’s unpaid safety fines raised another in the many questions that are out there about The Greenbrier sale:  Why does this fellow have more than $20 million to buy a resort, but can’t come up with $1 million to pay off his MSHA debt?

I don’t doubt for a second that Gov. Manchin cares about coal miners. His family felt the pain of disaster, when his uncle was among those killed in the Farmington explosion back in 1968.  After the Sago Mine disaster three years ago, Manchin said he wanted to make West Virginia’s coal mines the safest in the nation. He’s repeated that promise many times, including in his 2009 State of the State address:

We will continue to face challenges in this demanding industry, but let me assure you — our mission is still to protect every miner so that he or she will return home safely to their families.

But sometimes you have to wonder about how far Manchin goes in praising folks he thinks are doing something good for West Virginia (like rescuing The Greenbrier from bankruptcy) … or how far the governor goes in praising, defending or promoting the coal industry.

What about remembering somebody like Brett R.Gibson, a 31-year-old coal miner who was killed at Justice’s Double Bonus Coal Co. No. 65 Mine near Pineville, W.Va., on Oct. 30, 2006.

Gibson and another miner, 31-year-old Dave Lane of Mullens, were repairing Gibson’s shuttle car. Gibson had complained about a problem with the vehicle. When the repairs began, the shuttle car was parked on a slant, and it started to move.
Gibson was killed when he was pinned between the shuttle car and a mine wall.

State investigators noted that Gibson and Lane were in the wrong position — outside of the operator’s deck — of the shuttle car while the vehicle was running. They also noted that the parking brake was not engaged.

But federal MSHA investigators got more to the heart of the matter:  They reported that the accident occurred because Double Bonus Coal did not take the shuttle car immediately out of service to repair the problem Gibson had complained about (the tram pedal was sticking, because it was not properly lubricated).

MSHA issued two citations, and fined Double Bonus a total of $5,723. The money has never been paid, and the fines are listed by MSHA as delinquent.