Coal Tattoo

Reminder: Spike Maynard on the Aracoma Mine fire

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What an odd coincidence that former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard announced his candidacy for Congress the same day that we learned of a major court ruling in the litigation surrounding the fatal January 2006 fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

Why? Because one of the e-mails that surfaced (because of dogged reporting by The Associated Press) between Maynard and Massey CEO Don Blankenship concerned the Aracoma fire and the deaths of miners Ellery Hatfield and Don Bragg.

As we’ve noted before over on the Gazette’s Sustained Outrage blog:

Among other things, the five e-mails contained one note in which Maynard  comments to Blankenship about part of the law firm Web site of one of Maynard’s primary election opponents, Menis Ketchum, that describes the firm’s work on mine safety cases and refers to the Jan. 29, 2006, fire that killed two workers at Massey’s Arcoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. Maynard wrote to Blankenship:

This one you gotta see — Aracoma is mentioned — you could have prevented it if you had only operated the mine properly according to Menis.

Maynard’s e-mail messages to Blankenship are posted here, and the Web sites he’s referring to are here.

What is it that Maynard told Blankenship he just had to see? Well, Ketchum’s former law firm outlined on its Web site — like a lot of firms do — the kinds of work they perform. And it had this to say about coal mine accident cases:

Coal mining is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations.

Yet, it took three mine disasters, Sago, Maverick and Aracoma, to remind people in West Virginia, Kentucky and around the world of the inherent dangers coal miners face. Such disasters are not necessary and can be prevented if coal mine companies, machinery and equipment manufacturers and contractors are held accountable for failing to implement, practice and enforce  coal mine safety.

So, could the Aracoma fire — and the deaths of two miners — been avoided if Massey had operated the Aracoma Mine properly?

Well, Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty in federal court to 10 criminal charges, including one felony, and paid $2.5 million in criminal fines.  In the plea agreement, Aracoma admitted that one of the violations — the failure to replace a key ventilation wall — “resulted in the deaths” of Bragg and Hatfield.

In ruling in favor of miners who survived the Aracoma fire, Logan Circuit Judge Roger Perry cited this guilty plea:

Aracoma’s conduct in this case is clear and uncontroverted. Given the voluntary admissions of guilt, it is clear not only that Aracoma acted with deliberate intent regarding the unsafe working conditions in its coal mine, it acted with criminal intent.

As the campaign develops, it will be interested to see how Spike Maynard explains his statement about the Aracoma fire, and whether as a member of Congress he would support strict enforcement — including criminal prosecution — of the rules meant to ensure that coal miners make it home every day to their families.