Coal Tattoo

Mine Explosion Congress


Taft, California, is a long way from the Mingo County coalfields where Don Blankenship grew up. And Vegas is certainly a long way from Montcoal, West Virginia, where 29 coal miners died on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at a mine run by Blankenship’s old company, Massey Energy.

So maybe we should be generous and forgive the former Massey CEO and his career campaign consultants if they get a few details confused in the advertising campaign they hope will win Blankenship a seat in the U.S. Senate — or at least deny re-election to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, or maybe just confuse for the sake of history what happened at Upper Big Branch..

Maybe Blankenship really believes the ads. Maybe he really wants to be a Senator. Maybe he just wants to settle old scores.

Whichever the case, Blankenship and his consultants are really asking the wrong question about Upper Big Branch. If you ask the right question, the answer here — as it is with most industrial disasters — is that there is plenty of blame to go around for the 29 deaths at UBB.

The other evening, I was thinking about this as I read through the piece that the good folks at PolitiFact published about Blankenship’s ad campaign. They rated his statement — that the Obama administration’s internal review of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s role in a deadly mine explosion was ‘fixed'” — as “pants on fire.” In the world of PolitiFact’s “Truth-O-Meter,” this means: “The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”

(By way of full disclosure, the PolitiFact folks are partnering with the Gazette-Mail on some fact-checking in West Virginia politics, and their piece on Blankenship credited me with “additional reporting.” All that really means is that I talked to the reporter who wrote the piece, pointed out some of the relevant public records and provided a bunch of links to previous coverage of the issues.)

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail Don Blankenship, center, and his legal team exit the Robert C. Byrd Courthouse during Tuesday's lunch break.


PolitiFact published its piece on Monday evening, and by late afternoon Tuesday, the Blankenship campaign had responded with an email blast that listed a timeline of events regarding the MSHA investigation of UBB and the agency’s “internal review” of its own actions at the mine prior to the disaster.

One of the more interesting things about Blankenship’s timeline is that, while a centerpiece of his campaign is arguing that the media has helped to cover up events at UBB, the timeline links four times to a post from this blog, produced by what has to be Blankenship’s least favorite media outlet.  My guess is that then-MSHA chief Joe Main would be surprised to hear that we were helping him cover up the truth about the agency’s actions at UBB.

We published the post that Blankenship cites on Feb. 14, 2012. The headline read, “What’s going on with MSHA’s UBB internal review?”  Among the things the Blankenship campaign picks up on from our reporting (we did other stories and blog posts on this issue here, here and here) is the departure from MSHA’s internal review team of a longtime agency staffer named Jack Kuzar.

Blankenship’s campaign pulled out one part of a quote from an interview I did with Kuzar where he said about his departure, “people didn’t like what they were being told.” It’s worth looking at the entire passage from the blog post that included that quote, to understand the context:

I asked Kuzar straight out if he had been pressured to not fully examine MSHA’s potential failings at Upper Big Branch, or if anyone had tried to force or even convince him to change the findings of his team. He told me:

There was nobody holding my hand. They didn’t give me any directions like, ‘you’ve got to sweeten this’. People didn’t like what they were being told, but nobody put any undue pressure on me.

Taken within the context in which it was said, Kuzar’s comments at the time simply don’t support the argument Blankenship’s campaign is trying to use them to make. Read them for yourself.

It’s important to remember that neither the MSHA accident investigation report nor the MSHA internal review report stand alone.

For example, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel headed by Davitt McAteer looked closely at MSHA’s role in not preventing UBB. Regarding this somewhat confusing business about the UBB mine’s ventilation plan, the GIIP report had this to say:

Massey had publicly maintained that MSHA officials forced them to make ventilation changes that they didn’t want to make — with disastrous results. After a complete review of the record, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel found no evidence of MSHA directing Massey’s ventilation proposals.

The GIIP report was hardly easy on MSHA, though. A section of the report concludes that among MSHA’s failures at UBB was, “overlooking the deadly potential of a precarious ventilation system.” It outlines a long list of ventilation problems at UBB and inaction by MSHA officials to get the company to take action to save lives.

Along with the GIIP report, there was also a review by officials from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of MSHA’s UBB internal review. It was in re-reading the NIOSH report, in the context of the PolitiFact piece and Blankenship’s response, that it became clear to me that the problem with Blankenship’s ads is that they are focused on the wrong question.

Blankenship’s campaign wants the question to be: Did MSHA blow up the UBB mine? And he wants to create doubt about the MSHA internal review’s conclusion that it “did not find evidence that the actions of  [MSHA] personnel or inadequacies in MSHA safety and health standards, policies or procedures caused the explosion.”

Here’s what the NIOSH report had to say about that:

After reviewing the MSHA IR Report in detail, the IP does not take exception to the Report’s conclusion that the mine operator, not MSHA, caused the explosion. However, the IP believes that the characterization of the facts underlying this conclusion understates the role that MSHA’s enforcement could have had in preventing the explosion. Had the MSHA IR Team considered the causation issues from a broader viewpoint, the IP believes that the Team could have posed, and addressed, the question: would a more effective enforcement effort have prevented the UBB explosion? The IP believes that had the Team addressed this question, it would be in a better position to help MSHA define and prioritize its recommendations and succeed in implementing them.

(See here for the Coal Tattoo blog post the broke the story of the NIOSH report’s conclusions and here for a Gazette-Mail story about the report)

In particular, the NIOSH report talked about two failings by MSHA:

—  … If MSHA enforcement personnel had completed required enforcement actions during at least one of the four UBB inspections [immediately prior to the blast], it is unlikely that a roof fall would have occurred and that airflow would have been reduced as a consequence. With proper quantity of air, there would not have been an accumulation of methane, thereby eliminating the fuel sources for the gas explosion; and

—  … If MSHA enforcement personnel had taken appropriate actions during the inspections in the month prior to the explosion, either dangerous accumulations of explosive coal dust would have been rendered inert, or the mine would have been idled.

The NIOSH report’s conclusion:

Therefore, the IP’s overall analysis suggests that if MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act, and applicable standards and regulation, it would have lessened the chances of—and possibly prevented—the UBB explosion. Even if a frictional ignition had occurred, there would have been little or no accumulated methane to fuel the gas explosion, and even if a gas explosion had occurred, there would have been insufficient combustible coal dust to fuel a massive explosion.

Of course, tougher federal enforcement — more inspections, stiffer fines, mine closure orders and criminal prosecutions of mine owners — aren’t the kinds of things Don Blankenship wants to focus on as he runs for Senate, fresh out of jail and nearly eight years removed from the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation.

In its latest email blast, the Blankenship campaign complains that the news media doesn’t want to talk about Upper Big Branch anymore — that “some in the media even say the UBB explosion is old news” and that “no one cares about that anymore.”

Part of what Blankenship’s campaign is really hoping is that enough voters have forgotten, and that enough folks in the news media either weren’t around for UBB or if they were around never bothered to dig into the details in the first place. Or that the news media will allow the issue of what happened at UBB to turn into just another “he said-she said” campaign argument. Maybe he’s right about voters and the news media. But for 29 families, what happened on April 5, 2010, isn’t old news. They care. They feel it every day — and especially this time of year — when a husband or a brother or a son or a father is missing from their family’s holiday gathering.

Mine Explosion Anniversary