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MSHA probes whether Massey warned of inspections

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) - Federal investigators are looking into
allegations that Massey Energy Co. illegally warned workers when
safety inspectors arrived at its operations, the head of the
federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said Monday.

Relatives and colleagues of 29 West Virginia miners killed in
the nation's worst coal industry disaster in 40 years made the
allegations Monday before the U.S. House Education and Labor
Committee, where they described the Upper Big Branch mine as a
disaster waiting to happen.

Massey used codes to warn workers when regulators showed up,
said Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne Quarles died in the
explosion.

"When an MSHA inspector comes onto a Massey mine property, the
code words go out, 'we've got a man on the property,"' Quarles
testified. "Those words are radioed from the guard gates and
relayed to all working operations in the mine."

After that, workers are expected to do everything possible to
quickly correct problems or divert the inspectors' attention from
any issues, Quarles said.

The witnesses also described illegal ventilation changes,
methane gas fireballs and thick accumulations of combustible coal
dust.

The congressional committee is investigating the April 5
explosion. Committee members said they are considering hiring more
inspectors, removing loopholes that companies exploit to avoid
being labeled persistent violators, and stronger protections for
whistleblowers.

Warning of an impending inspection is a civil violation of
federal mining regulations, MSHA chief Joe Main told The Associated
Press after the hearing. Whether it's a crime as well is under
consideration and may be looked into by other federal agencies.

The secretary of labor, MSHA's parent agency, sued two companies
and three officials earlier this month for allegedly tipping off
workers that inspectors had arrived. The agency says the warnings
are a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to six months in prison
and a $1,000 fine.

"What some companies may be doing is trying to hide outlaw and
illegal activities," Main said.

Miner Adam Morgan once told of being ordered to apply rock dust
quickly because an inspector was heading underground, said his
father, Steve Morgan.

And miner Stanley "Goose" Stewart, who was about 300 feet
inside Upper Big Branch when the explosion occurred, said methane
gas and dust clouded the mine. He's been unable to work since the
blast.

"You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," he said.

Adam Morgan routinely asked about ventilation problems and,
despite being a trainee, fixed some on his own, said Steve Morgan,
himself a veteran underground coal miner.

"He said just about every shift he worked he had to do some
kind of ventilation repairs and some, like I said, he had to do on
his own," Steve Morgan said. When Adam Morgan complained, a Massey supervisor told him to consider a different line of work.

Massey repeated that it's continuing to cooperate with
investigators and reiterated claims by Chief Executive Don
Blankenship that it does not put profits ahead of safety.

"Our focus remains on providing for the families affected by
this tragic accident and cooperating with state and federal
agencies to determine its cause," the company said.

Leo Long said his grandson Ronald Lee Maynor worked in dangerous
conditions out of fear of losing his job.

"If they found a violation, the boss would tell 'em, 'Get back
to work.' If they don't go back to work, they'd be fired," Long
said.

Clay Mullins dismissed Blankenship's assertion that Massey puts
safety first as he related a final conversation with his brother
Rex Mullins the day before he died.

"I talked to him Easter Sunday before this happened and the
only thing that he said to me was all that was thought about there
was running coal," Mullins said. Performance Coal executives only
wanted "to run, run, run, no matter what the conditions were."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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