Coal Tattoo

Widows sue MSHA in fatal Aracoma Mine fire

donbragg2The widows of Massey Energy miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield this morning sued the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for the agency’s failure to take action to prevent the January 2006 fire that killed Bragg and Hatfield.

Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield filed their Federal Tort Claims Act suit in U.S. District Court in Charleston over the fire at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.

Among other things, the suit cited an MSHA internal review report which found agency inspectors did not cite Massey or require the company to fix numerous major safety violations that contributed to the fire and to the miners’ deaths. The violations included failure to properly train workers, improper mine ventilation, faulty monitoring systems, inadequate pre-shift safety checks and accumulations of combustible materials. The lawsuit stated:

In every instance, MSHA noted the failure of its inspection personnel to inspect and remedy egregious safety violations that existed in the Alma Mine.

The existence of all of these contributing factors created a ‘perfect storm’ that all but guaranteed a tragic accident. Had even one of these major violations been properly and appropriated cited by MSHA, Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield ma not have died in the mine fire.

The suit continues:

The sheet number and egregiousness of the readily apparent safety violations at the Alma Mine, which should have been identified by MSHA personnel if they had performed adequate inspections during their repeated trips to the Alma Mine preceding the fatal fire, are sufficient to lead a reasonable observer to question the true nature of the relationship between the responsible MSHA personnel and company management.

The suit notes that MSHA’s internal review reported on “tensions” between an MSHA supervisor and the Aracoma Coal management relating to citations in early 2001, after which time MSHA assigned new personnel to the mine. After that, the internal review found, MSHA suddenly stopped issuing more serious enforcement orders at the mine.  The internal review reported:

… Mine inspectors neglected to issue citations in some situations in which citations were justified and … mine inspectors on occasion underestimated the operator’s negligence and/or the gravity of the hazardous conditions when violations were cited …

… The internal review team believes that some of the identified deficiencies may have stemmed from the relationship that MSHA developed with Massey Energy Company representatives in early 2001 … [U]sing enforcement personnel in this manner to assist the Aracoma Coal Company with its compliance efforts may have created a conflict of interest that, over time, may have affected the level of scrutiny MSHA provided at Aracoma Alma No. 1 during subsequent mine inspections.

Bruce Stanley, lawyer for the Bragg and Hatfield families, said today:

It’s time for MSHA to step up to the plate and acknowledge to its victims that which it has already acknowledged to itself. It owes these widows more than lip service. And while it appears that there has been some change since the dangerous days of Aracoma, at Upper Big Branch, a coal mine and an entire community now lie in tatters. In order to prevent these tragedies from occuring, MSHA must never forget that its job is regulation, not relationships. Thus we are not impressed by [National Mining Association lobbyist] Bruce Watzman’s recent call for a “cooperative emphasis” on coal mine safety as apparently such “cooperation” only lended to the horrific conditions at Aracoma.

Updated: I’ve posted a copy of the lawsuit here.