Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:April 7th, 2010 12:56 EST
"He Loved the Lord"-Massey Energy Co. cited more than 100 times for safety violations!

"He Loved the Lord"-Massey Energy Co. cited more than 100 times for safety violations!

By John G. Kays


With the death toll already at 25 in a Montcoal, West Virginia coal mine explosion, the focus is now on the many safety violations of Massey Energy Co`s Upper Big Branch. Coal mining has always been a dangerous industry. Over the past 110 years, since 1900, more than 100,000 coal miners have been killed. But in 2009 only 35 were killed.

Benny Willingham family

Yet the Upper Big Branch mine had 458 violations in 2009, with $897,325 in safety penalties assessed against it. Upper Big Branch has only paid off $168,393 of these fines. For 2010 they have been cited by the Mine Safety and Health Administration more than 100 times. Many of the safety violations were serious in nature, namely a failure to properly control methane levels.

It is suspected that the explosion inside the mine was caused by the build up of methane gas. The 2006 Sago mine accident was caused by a build up of methane also. Federal regulations got stricter after Sago, with more careful monitoring of air quality in active and sealed off sections of mines as a requirement.

Ellen Smith, managing editor of the trade publication Mine Safety and Health News, said that what raises the biggest red flag is the gravity of some of these violations. Citations are deemed unwarrantable failure " violations when they are related to necessary escape routes for miners or air quality ventilation. Upper Big Branch South Mine had six unwarrantable failures since January, " according to Ellen Smith. ( deaths spark criticism of operator`s record by CNN wire staff-4/7/2010)

The CEO of Massey Energy Company, parent company of Upper Big Branch, Don Blankenship, made this statement: We want to assure the families of all miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing. " But many have questioned Mr. Blankenship`s commitment to mine safety. (The New York Times-Rescue Suspended at Mine as death Toll Reaches 25 by Ian Urbina-April 6, 2010)

A 2006 memo by Don Blankenship to Massey`s underground mine superintendents instructs them to place coal production first. He wrote, This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills. " (The New York Times-ibid)

Massey Energy is the fourth largest American coal producer and the largest in this central Appalacian region. Massey produced 38 million tons of coal in 2009. 1.2 tons came from the Upper Big Branch South mine and earning were $497 million. But mining in an unsafe way is cheaper than complying with the statutes. (

No amount of statistics can trump the personal level of tragedy in Montcoal, West Virginia. Over the past few days the death of one of the miners has been reported on the news, and it has touched millions of Americans. That miner is Benny Willingham, 62, who had been working in the mines for 17 years. Benny was due to retire shortly.

I was touched by the family`s account of Benny. By their testimony, he was a good man. And Massey did not even notify the family of his death. Benny`s sister had to go up there to find out.

Willingham`s sister, Jean, made this heart-felt statement to CNN. He loved the Lord, and in church the other day, he thanked the Lord for saving his soul, and he thanked him for watching over him in the mines for over 30 years, and he said, "if he takes me tomorrow, I`ve had a good life.` " It`s as if Benny`s fate was written in the cards.