Working In These Times
‘Something Needs to Be Done’: Massey Mine Survivor Testifies Before Congress
On July 13, the House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing on proposed legislation to toughen mine safety. The major impetus for this legislation was the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine that killed 29 miners, the worst U.S. mining accident in the past 25 years.
The committee heard from many luminaries including two assistant secretaries of labor, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, the general counsel of the AFL-CIO, and a distinguished professor of mining engineering, as well as representatives from mining industry groups.
But the most compelling testimony came from a UBB coal miner who was underground on the day of the explosion. (VIDEO BELOW.) Stanley "Goose" Stewart has been mining coal for 34 years and working at the UBB mine, owned by Massey Energy Company, for the last 15 years. He explained to the committee how Massey's disregard for miner safety affected he and his co-workers every day.
"I'm here to speak for my 29 brothers who did not make it out," Stewart told the committee. "This tragedy never should have happened in America today."
"Something needs to be done to stop outlaw coal companies who blatantly disregard the laws," he continued. "Many things were wrong at Upper Big Branch, such as low air constantly."
Mine inspections are supposed to be a surprise, but Stewart said that management found ways to tip off miners in advance so that they could pass their inspections. Someone on the surface would call the section boss underground and use code to alert him. "It's cloudy outside," or "There's a man on the property," were the signal to get the mine cleaned up to pass inspection.
The new law would make this kind of tipoff a felony.
Stewart said that management routinely forced the miners to work in unsafe and illegal conditions. Danger signs were apparent long before the blast, but no one would listen when miners complained. Everyone was terrified of being fired.
In the months before the April 5 blast, Stewart's section foreman complained to upper management because he was getting consistently low air readings. "He would be berated and told to go back to work or he would lose his job, and the air was never fixed," Stewart said.
Stewart said he was worried about the long wall before the blast. He felt the constant ventilation problems coupled with the large amounts of methane seeping from the rock made the area a "ticking time bomb."
"In my years of working for Massey, I feel they have taken coal mining back to the early 1990s using 3 principles; fear, intimidation, and propaganda."
Stewart described how the mine owners would game the system to make their safety statistics look good on paper: "I know personally that Massey sends a safety director to the hospital to pressure miners hurt on the job to return and sit in the office so their accident doesn't get listed as a "lost time accident."
The new law would toughen whistleblower protections for miners who expose unsafe work practices. It would also ensure that miners receive full pay for the time that the mine is closed due to safety infractions. Currently, miners only get paid for 4 hours if they're sent home early due to unsafe conditions. Stewart said that sometimes Massey doesn't even pay that much.
"A coal mine is the worst place in the world to work if you have no rights, and at Massey you had very little rights. You knew if you stood up to them, you'd be out of a job," Stewart said, " I wonder what will happen to me for speaking out now."