The Politics of Coal in West Virginia

If it was Dan Heyman’s voice on the radio, you knew it was going to be about coal.

Most likely about coal mine safety.

And most likely it was something you would not hear anywhere else on the radio–public radio or otherwise.

Heyman would talk to coal workers.

And mine inspectors.

And neighbors of coal mines.

Over the years, Heyman, a veteran radio reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, had taken to the statewide airwaves with dozens of stories about coal mine safety.

In June 2006, he was working on the next story in line.

Inspectors at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) were talking to Heyman about problems at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma #1 mine in Logan County.

A January 2006 fire at the mine resulted in the deaths of two miners.

“I spoke to a number of federal and state regulators who said they were personally pressured to not vigorously enforce the mine safety rules at Aracoma,” Heyman told CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER.

“At Alma #1, the fatal January accident was a mine fire at a conveyor belt,” Heyman said. “In my investigation of that mine, I found that there had been two previous conveyor belt fires. Both of them were less than a month before the fatal fire. Both of these mine fires took more than a half an hour to put out. And they should have been reported to MSHA and they weren’t. And the problems should have been corrected and they weren’t. Aracoma had two warnings before the fatal fire at the very least–and those were the two previous fires. One of them took place at exactly the same place as the fatal fire.”

Last week, MSHA issued a scathing report on the fatal fire and fined Massey for $1.5 million for 25 violations at the mine.

MSHA chief Richard E. Stickler told reporters last week that “the number and severity of safety violations at the mine at the time of the fire demonstrated reckless disregard for safety, warranting the highest fine MSHA has levied for a fatal coal mining accident.”

The case has been referred to the U.S. Attorney for possible criminal prosecution.

MSHA acted last week.

But Heyman was on to the problem last year–he was working on the story in the first half of 2006.

But then, in June 2006, before the story about the MSHA inspectors could be completed and aired, Heyman was abruptly fired.

“I may have been pushing the envelope at public broadcasting, but it is also entirely possible–and this is what my editor would say–that the reason that I was fired had nothing to do with this story,” Heyman told CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER. “And there is an argument to be made there. They were promoting somebody who had less experience than me. And I maybe was making my editor nervous because of the kind of reporting I was doing. But they were also not promoting me, they were promoting someone else.”

Greg Collard, Heyman’s editor at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

“Let’s call it a coincidence,” Heyman says.

“What happened to me is not important,” Heyman said. “But what happened to these MSHA inspectors is. The field office that included supervision and inspection of Alma #1 had a number of long-time experienced inspectors who were forced into retirement. And for at least five of them, the agency reclassified them. They had been inspectors of specific kinds of issues at mines. One was an electrical specialist. A couple were ventilation specialists, roof supports specialists. They were working on specific areas in coal mines. These were middle aged men getting on in their careers. But they were very experienced and very hard-nosed inspectors. The five of them were reclassified as general mine inspectors. This required that they had to pass a physical to keep their jobs. The general mine inspectors had to pass this physical. The specific area inspectors did not. So, that area office in Logan County — eliminated the specific mine inspectors. And these five MSHA inspectors were forced to take disability retirement. They couldn’t pass the physicals.”

And they were forced out for doing their jobs?

“Very much so,” Heyman said. “I believe they were forced out for doing their jobs.”

MSHA is conducting an internal review of its actions at Aracoma prior to the fatal January 2006 fire.

That report is expected to be released next month.

And there is an ongoing criminal investigation of the operations of the Alma #1 mine.

As for the MSHA report and fines, Massey Energy said it was reviewing the MSHA report and “has no specific comments about its contents at this time.”

“Massey Energy respects the views of MSHA and will fully consider the agency’s findings as part of the company’s own investigation of the incident,” the company said in a statement. “Massey Energy remains deeply saddened by the loss of its two miners and is committed to taking the actions necessary to conduct mining safely.”

Massey has said in the past that “it does appear that there were conditions at Aracoma at the time of the fire that did not meet Massey Energy standards.”

“The conditions appear to have occurred despite rigorous requirements for safety examinations and inspections for underground mines,” the company said. “In 2005 alone, Aracoma mine personnel conducted over 1,500 safety examinations and federal and state mine inspectors conducted nearly 200 safety inspections. Such a process normally leads to the diligent discovery and correction of potential mine hazards by professionals dedicated to safety. At Aracoma, it appears that deficiencies were not fully recognized by mine personnel or by state or federal inspectors.”

As for Heyman, he’s now a freelancer based in Charleston and a stringer for the New York Times. He’s also working on a novel–his first.

“It’s a detective novel that involves a coal mine accident,” Heyman told CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER. “I’m almost done with the second draft. I’m talking to an agent. The story itself is fiction. But the setting is based on reality.”

(For a complete transcript of the Interview with Dan Heyman, see 21 CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER 15, April 5, 2007, print edition only.)

CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER is located in Washington, DC. They can be reached through their website.