May 18, 2010

NPR has a pretty chilling report on the investigation of Massey Energy's management of the Upper Big Branch mine ventilation. After listening to their report and reading the allegations miners made about the ventilation system it seems apparent that clowns were in charge of lifesaving ventilation systems.

Some snippets from mine safety inspectors' reports in the months leading up to the explosions:

Jan. 7, 2010: the air flow is not in the direction as shown on the approved map ... [miners] questioned management about this condition and they were told it was fine, not to worry about it.

March 9, 2010: Test[ed] air flow and it was flowing in the wrong direction. ... [I]nformed [manager's name blacked out] that the air was not according to the approved plan [and] that a citation would be issued [for] high negligence. ... All men [in that section] were removed from the mine.

Moving on to NPR's interviews with employees reveals an even uglier scene:

"They wouldn't fix the ventilation problems," a former supervisor and a member of mine management said. "I told them I needed more air. They threatened to fire me if I didn't run enough coal."

Another miner said "there was constant confusion" in the management of the airflow system.

A third miner described mine managers this way: "They don't have a clue how to ventilate this place."

It would seem there is either incompetence or negligence at this point, but it appears there may be more to the story still.

NPR first discovered the FBI investigation three weeks ago, when a reporter knocked on the door of the home of an Upper Big Branch miner. The man said he couldn't talk because he was in the middle of an interview with an FBI agent. NPR confirmed the federal criminal investigation with law enforcement sources familiar with the probe.

A reporter returned to the miner's home after the FBI interview. The miner said he was asked whether a Massey manager made unauthorized changes to the ventilation plan. He was also asked whether miners ever disabled methane monitors.

Asking the question doesn't mean anything like that happened, of course. At the same time, those kinds of questions aren't often asked without some indication there may actually be a possibility the ventilation plan or the monitors were tampered with, in which case Massey Energy should become the first corporate "person" to be tried for 29 counts of murder.

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