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Published: Thursday, 7/7/2011

Hidden hazards

As if the news couldn’t get worse about the conditions before the explosion last year that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch coal mine, a federal official now says that miners detected inadequate underground ventilation and poor roof conditions during an inspection a month before the disaster.

But instead of noting these concerns in the pre-shift examination log available to inspectors and miners, Massey Energy workers at the Montcoal, W. Va., mine recorded them in a production book, which is considered proprietary.

Kevin Stricklin, head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said company personnel have indicated that the mine’s top managers put pressure on supervisors to keep the pre-shift logs clean. This revelation, which emerged from documents inadvertently turned over by Massey, is further evidence of the company’s contempt for safety procedures and worker well-being.

Massey no longer owns the mine; the company sold it after the April 5, 2010, explosion to Alpha Natural Resources. But Massey owns the tragedy that befell the workers and their families that day.

Despite the Upper Big Branch deaths, former Massey CEO Don Blankenship was publicly contemptuous of federal regulators, “environmental extremists,” and the press. He maintained afterwards that the explosion was caused by an unexpected burst of methane.

An investigative report ordered by the governor of West Virginia and released in May told a different story. It laid the blame squarely on Massey, accusing the company of ignoring basis safety practices — neglect that “contributed mightily to the loss of the lives of these miners.”

Fortunately, a grand jury criminal probe by the Justice Department is under way. That won’t bring back the miners, but it could bring the nation closer to the truth.

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