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Pa. miners fight cover-up by bosses, government on safety
Workers testify on Quecreek mine flooding disaster
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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 66/No.42November 11, 2002


Public meeting in New York City, Saturday, November 2:
Communists and the World Struggle against Imperialism Today

lead article
Pa. miners fight cover-up
by bosses, government on safety
Workers testify on Quecreek
mine flooding disaster
Militant/Chris Remple
Ron Hileman, one of miners trapped at Quecreek mine, testifies at October 22 hearing.

SOMERSET, Pennsylvania—Seven of the nine coal miners who were trapped underground in the flooded Quecreek mine here in July are fighting to prevent a coverup by the bosses and government regulators of the company’s responsibility for the disaster.

The workers were trapped for 78 hours when at least 77 million gallons of water rushed into the mine. The flood occurred as the crew was cutting coal with a continuous mining machine and water poured in from the adjacent abandoned Saxman mine, along with trapped mine gases. The miners were found alive after a round-the-clock rescue operation by fellow workers. The nonunion mine was operated by Black Wolf Coal for PBS Coals, the state’s largest strip mine operator.

The seven miners are Blaine Mayhugh, Thomas Foy, John Unger, John Phillippi, Robert Pugh, Ron Hileman, and Dennis Hall. Mark Poppernack and Randy Fogel, the foremen, were trapped underground with them. A second nine-man crew was warned in enough time for them to make their way out of the mine through the floodwaters July 24. Along with their attorney Howard Messer, several of the miners testified October 21 at a hearing in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, organized by a U.S. Senate labor appropriations subcommittee. The following day miners spoke again at a governor’s commission established to investigate mine voids and shoddy maps.

Mayhugh, the youngest of the trapped miners, shook listeners at the Senate field hearings when he revealed that Fogel, their section foreman, had said he had warned company officials of deteriorating conditions in the mine. Fogel told the trapped miners that two days before the accident, Black Wolf Coal Co. president David Rebuck had expressed concern about unsafe conditions. "He was scared we were mining up in there," the foreman said.

"We were on our deathbeds with only an hour left to live, and I guess he [Fogel] wanted to clear his conscience," Mayhugh testified.

Fogel did not attend the hearing; he was in Hollywood at the time working on the production of a TV movie about the incident. Both the company president and the foreman have maintained they had no inkling of the flood danger.

Miners reported increasingly wet conditions and loose top that caused production to slow by half in the days leading up to the disaster.

Speaking to the Senate subcommittee, John Phillippi described how the nine trapped miners gasped for breath and vomited from mine gases released from the abandoned mine before an emergency ventilation shaft reached them. The bosses "knew there was a problem," he said. "We told them, and it’s unbelievable that they can sit there and lie."  
Calls for open hearings
Phillippi expressed concern that the official investigations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would result in a cover-up. "We need to know the truth," he said.

Both MSHA and the DEP have been conducting closed door investigations. The state attorney general also revealed recently that he has been looking into whether or not to file criminal charges in the matter.

By contrast, the seven trapped miners, along with friends, relatives, members of the community, and officials of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) have demanded open hearings.

MSHA head David Lauriski expressed surprise at Mayhugh’s testimony. Nothing like this had ever been reported to MSHA, he said.

"What does he expect--MHSA interrogated the men in front of the company and the company lawyer, with no representation of their own!" said Joe Main, health and safety director for the UMWA, before the October 22 hearing.

Company and state officials have laid the blame for the disaster on inaccurate maps of the old Saxman mine, which closed in 1964. Investigators have found that the development of the Quecreek mine was based on a 1957 production map. As they worked in the mine, miners believed they were hundreds of feet away from the old workings.

Only after the accident--one month after, in fact--did a 1964 map marked "final" turn up in a Somerset County museum showing the sealed mine to be substantially larger than had been believed, to the extent that it overlapped areas permitted for Quecreek mine development.  
Were inaccurate maps the only issue?
Coal industry officials insist mapping was the only issue. "What we want is for the mapping issue to be addressed. We think once that question is addressed, then this commission has answered the question of Quecreek," said George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association.

"Maps of old workings have to be validated, perhaps by core drilling, even if it costs a lot of money. That’s better than costing lives," said Messer, the miners’ attorney, to the governor’s commission.

The burden of ensuring mine safety falls on the operators, he said, charging that Black Wolf Coal, which operates Quecreek mine, "is a paper corporation, a shield" used as a tactic to foil workers’ attempts to maintain union coverage, and to distance the real owners from liability in the case of such accidents. Black Wolf owns no equipment, and sells all its coal to Mincorp. Its president is a former Mincorp executive.

Messer noted that Black Wolf Mining did not even keep on the premises a horizontal drill--a vital piece of equipment for safe operations. Such a tool allows miners to drill ahead to check for water and mine gases.

Messer also questioned the process that allowed Mincorp to get a state mining permit in 1999 despite protests and warnings by dozens of neighbors.

Also attending the Somerset meeting were eight of the nine miners who were able to escape the flooded mine and had then joined the rescue effort. Several defended the company’s safety record, placing the blame on government regulatory failings and bad maps, and said wet conditions in the mine prior to the inundation were typical for the area.

Tony Lane, the Socialist Workers candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, addressed the commission. Lane is an underground coal miner near Pittsburgh and a member of the UMWA. He described what he had learned by talking to Somerset residents during a fact-finding trip to the area while the miners were still trapped.

Lane called for open hearings to investigate the accident. "This way working people can see what the companies are doing, and also see what the government agencies are doing." He pointed to foot- dragging by MSHA in investigating other recent mine disasters, such as the sludge spill two years ago in Inez, Kentucky, and the mine explosion last year in Alabama. "There is still no report on the Brookwood disaster, which claimed the lives of 13 Alabama miners," he said.

"The problem can’t be reduced to one of bad maps. It’s greed," said Lane. "The system of greed--capitalism. The real question is what happened when the DEP gave permission for the mine to open despite a public outcry at the time, and also accepted the maps provided by the company without question."  
Increase in mine fatalities
Lane pointed to the fact that the rate of mine fatalities has climbed back up in recent years. "It’s workers’ actions that brought about real changes in safety. That has been shown throughout the history of the miners and our union," he said.

Last year 42 mine workers were killed on the job, as the fatality rate climbed for the third straight year. So far this year, 17 miners have been killed.

In article published in the October 25 Pittsburgh Tribune Review, UMWA international president Cecil Roberts wrote that the Senate subcommittee hearing "raises some serious questions," including the fact that several miners had sounded the alarm to the Black Wolf Coal bosses about the safety hazards in the mine.

Roberts noted, "Had the Quecreek miners been members of the United Mine Workers of America, they would have had a contractual right of ‘refusal to work.’" He added that "if management disputed their claim, the UMWA mine health and safety committee would have intervened and taken the miners’ concerns--such as water--directly to management and the appropriate state and federal agencies."

Feeling the heat of the miners’ testimony, Pennsylvania senator Arlen Spector submitted a letter to U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan a couple of days after the hearing. "We heard testimony indicating that certain federal mine regulations may have been violated" by Black Wolf Coal, he wrote. In a separate letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Spector stated that "substantial questions about the fairness and impartiality of this investigation" had been raised.

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