In the aftermath of the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh Co., W. Va., the safety history at that mine and of Massey Energy overall is “troubling and demands a tough investigation” moving forward, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a prepared statement.

“Our hearts and prayers remain with the families of those who lost loved ones at this mine,” Roberts said. “Many of those lost were family, friends and neighbors of our members, and some were even past members of our union.

“This is and will remain a very personal tragedy for those of us from that part of the country for the rest of our lives, and for generations to follow,” Roberts said. “I personally knew three of the victims – I grew up with their families.

“As I said previously, at times like these we are all brothers and sisters in the coalfields,” Roberts said. “We suffer and grieve along with the families. And as we do, we cannot ignore the very troubling realities of what happened in that mine in the days and weeks leading up to the disaster. Nor can we ignore the grim statistics that are associated with Massey and the mines under its control.”

Roberts said that a UMWA Health and Safety Department review of fatalities at coal mines since 2000 showed that, prior to the Upper Big Branch disaster, 20 people had been killed at mines operated by Massey, its subsidiaries or subcontractors.

“Every year, like clockwork, at least one person has been killed since 2000 on the property of Massey or one of its subsidiaries,” Roberts said. “With those already known to be dead at Upper Big Branch, it’s now up to 45 people in the past 11 years, and four more missing at this point. No other coal operator even comes close to that fatality rate during that time frame. That demands a serious and immediate investigation by MSHA and by Congress.”

Roberts noted that in a press conference yesterday, Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) observed, “It’s quite evident something went very wrong here.” Stricklin went on to say that “all explosions are preventable.”

“Mine safety laws and regulations have progressed to the point where, when followed and properly enforced, they should prevent disasters like this one at Upper Big Branch from happening,” Roberts said. “Clearly that was not the case here. The mine had a continuing history of safety violations, including several of a very serious nature.”

However, MSHA has been prevented from taking more aggressive action at this mine because the operator has contested over 30 percent of the violations, leaving them in limbo until adjudicated by the Federal Mine Health and Safety Review Commission (FMHSRC). “That means no pattern of violations can be readily established at this mine, leaving MSHA without the ability to use stronger enforcement powers,” Roberts said. “This is a problem that extends beyond Massey Energy mines,” Roberts said. “There is a huge backlog of contested cases before the FMHSRC. These cases aren’t just clogging up the system, they’re leading to a reduced ability to strictly enforce mine safety and health laws and regulations at mines throughout the nation.”

“I’ve seen where Massey’s CEO, Don Blankenship, equates criticizing his or Massey’s safety record to being against coal and coal jobs,” Roberts said. “Well, on behalf of the tens of thousands of UMWA members and their families who depend on coal and coal jobs, as well as the tens of thousands of retirees and widows who depend on pensions and health care benefits paid for by coal, I’m here to tell Don that’s bull.

“No one wants a secure future for coal and coal jobs any more than I and our members do,” Roberts said. “We believe that future is real and that’s why we’re fighting for it every day in Congress, in the coalfields and everywhere else we can. But we also believe that the miners who work in those jobs ought to be able to come home at the end of their shift.”