April 8, 2010 / 1:11 AM / 10 years ago

U.S. mine blast firm lax on safety - former miners

* Former miners say Massey Energy puts profits over safety

* Massey defends safety of West Virginia mine

* Massey cited for two safety violations on day of blast

By Jon Hurdle

WHITESVILLE, West Virginia, April 7 (Reuters) - The company that owns the West Virginia mine where at least 25 workers died in the worst U.S. mining disaster for a quarter century puts profits ahead of workers welfare, some former employees said on Wednesday.

Questions have been raised about the safety practices of Massey Energy MEE.N, the largest coal producer in the Central Appalachia mountain region, as some people in the local mining community describe the company as a tough employer that skirts safety rules when it can to focus on production and profits.

Yet other locals rejected criticism of Massey Energy, saying they had seen no safety violations. Still others said the local economy so depends on the mines that those who do not work for Massey fear their businesses could be hurt if they antagonized the company.

Massey is a key employer and linchpin in the economy of the rural region, 30 miles (48 km) south of the state capital Charleston. The company has defended its safety record this week, saying its accident rate hit an all-time low in 2009.

But Jimmy Platt, 54, a former miner who worked briefly for Massey during his 17-year career, said that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine on Monday, which killed 25 workers and left four missing, was “an accident waiting to happen.”

Platt said he and other miners were sometimes required to put in 18 to 20-hour days and were told to work what he said was “unminable coal,” which opened wide cracks in the mine ceiling, making a roof collapse more likely.

Platt, who is now a chef, said the main difference between working for the non-unionized Massey and other mining companies that have union representation was “the right to say no.”

Massey was not immediately available to comment on Platt’s remarks.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration has appointed a team to investigate the blast.

“Twenty-five hard-working men died unnecessarily,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. “The very best way we can honor them is to do our job. (The) investigation team is committed to finding out what happened, and we will take action.”

The Upper Big Branch Mine has had three fatalities since 1998 and has a worse-than-average injury rate over the last 10 years, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration records, which also show it has been cited for more than 100 safety violations this year.

Ten of this year’s citations were for inadequate ventilation of gases.

The company received two citations for safety violations on Monday, one for unacceptable maps showing escapeways from the mine and the other for inadequate splicing of an electrical cable. It is unclear if these were issued before or after the explosion.

STRONG LOCAL TIES TO MASSEY

Raymond Johnson, 67, who spent seven of his 36 years in the mines working for Massey, said he did not see the company using unsafe practices in its mines.

“I can’t say from the experience I had that they cut a lot of corners,” Johnson told Reuters.

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But another retired miner who worked for Massey for two years disagreed.

“They don’t know what safety is,” said the 55-year-old man, who declined to give his name because his son works for Massey. “The only time they hang the curtain is when they know the inspector is coming.”

The “curtain” is a movable barrier designed to prevent fresh air in a mine becoming filled with coal dust as coal is dug from the ground.

The man said he was fired after missing three days of work because of sickness. He said that while Massey’s pay was good, he would never go back to work for the company, “not unless I’m starving to death.”

Some residents who criticized Massey declined to give their names, saying they would be victimized in the tight mining community.

“People are job scared,” said James Dean, an unemployed former worker for a coalfield services company.

Dean said Massey has a reputation locally for paying less attention to safety than it should. “It’s a dirty company,” he said. “They work those guys until they fall asleep.”

In a Whitesville supermarket, a retired miner, who declined to give his name, said he worked briefly for Massey during his 24 years in the coal business, and called it a “tough” company to work for.

“They think mining coal is the only thing there is,” he said. “They don’t like you eating lunch, and they expect you to work all the time.”

The retired miner also said Massey managers were lax about using the “curtain.”

But Lea Williams, who has been volunteering to take food to the mine rescue teams, overheard the supermarket conversation and warned Reuters not to write anything “negative” about Massey because of its economic importance to the community.

“I stand behind them 100 percent,” she said. “We very much depend on them. If it wasn’t for the mine, we would not be here.”

Earl Howell, a former miner who was mayor of Whitesville from 1970 to 1989, said safety at the area’s mines has declined with a fall in the number of unionized mines. But local people are unable to challenge Massey’s dominance.

“Everybody around here has some type of connection to Massey,” he said. (Editing by Michelle Nichols and Philip Barbara)

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