In September 2001 the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), citing resource constraints, withdrew a proposal to require coal bosses to stock extra caches of emergency breathing masks in every mine. Now MSHA officials say that without such caches miners are exposed to grave danger.
Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in West Virginia, owns the Alma No. 1 mine. Only 3 percent of Masseys 5,700 employees are in a union.
In addition to inadequate supplies of breathing masks, miners say the few facts that have emerged about the fire reflect a consistent pattern of disregard by both the mine bosses and government regulators for the lives of the miners who worked there.
The Alma No. 1 fire began on the belt that hauls coal up to the surface. A fire broke out in the same section of the belt in December, but the supervisors did nothing to correct the problem, an Alma miner told the New York Times, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal by the boss.
The bosses never want to shut down the belt. They try to keep the coal running out of the mine nonstop, Bethel Purkey, a retired underground miner for 28 years who lives in southern West Virginia, told the Militant. They knew that a bearing was heating up on the belt but they refused to shut it down.
Between 1970 and 1990 conveyor belts caused 42about 14 percentof the 307 underground mine fires reported. Between 1993 and 2002, the industry reported 10 conveyor belt fires. In about one-third of those fires, MSHA reported that flames traveled for hundreds of feet, creating a severe hazard to the health and safety of miners.
Compounding the danger, Massey was using the tunnel where the conveyor belt that caught fire is located to pump fresh air into the mine.
Federal regulations did not allow the use of this ventilation practice until 2004. However, for years prior to this change MSHA regularly approved exceptions to their more restrictive regulation. About 90 mines were granted permission to use belt entries for fresh-air intakes between 1998 and 2003, according to the Charleston Gazette.
Using the belt tunnel as an air intake saved the mine bosses the expense of digging extra ventilation shafts, while endangering miners lives.
Bringing fresh air in on the belt line is extremely dangerous, Purkey said. The union has always fought this. It means anything that happens on the belt immediately fouls the air the miners are breathing. Not only is this a fire hazard, but the belt kicks up a lot of coal dust, which is transported right into the working sections.
The way that ventilation was set up, once that fire started, those miners didnt have a chance, said William Chapman, a former underground miner who was on the scene at Alma No 1. mine with the union rescue teams that responded to the fire after being notified more than two hours after it happened.
A similar delay in notifying and assembling the rescue teams occurred after the January 2 Sago Mine disaster, in which 11 of the 12 men who died were trapped alive after the explosion. One of the miners, George Hamner Jr., wrote a note six hours after the explosion: We dont hear any attempts at drilling or rescue, he wrote. The section is full of smoke and fumes, so we cant escape. The rescue crew didnt enter the mine until 11 hours after the blast.
In order to increase production to meet higher demand at a time of rising coal prices, Massey submitted a request to waive a Kentucky law that requires miners to read English and speak it fluently in order to be able to hire Spanish-speaking immigrants. The coal boss cited a labor department study showing that Kentucky mine companies need 3,500 new workers.
The document also complained that the work ethic of the Eastern Kentucky worker has declined, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Attitudes have changed among the existing workforce, which affects attendance, drug use and, ultimately, productivity, it said.
Many working people took offense at the slanders by the company and say the proposal to bring in immigrant workers is part of Masseys efforts to keep wages down and the union out.
A miner interviewed by the Militant outside the Excel No. 3 mine in Pike County, Kentucky, asking that his name not be used for fear of retribution by the company, said the mine companies have a long history of trying to use immigrant labor to drive down the wages. Thats how a lot of our ancestors got to this area, he said. What we need is to get the union back in the mines here. I am ready for some action.
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