For 30 years, Chuck Nelson worked in the Coal River Valley in West Virginia.
For most of those years, he worked in union mines.
Then came Massey Energy.
Massey busted the union at mines up and down the Coal River.
And Nelson had no choice but to work for Massey.
He was forced out of the company in 2000, after complaining about Massey’s impact on the environment in the town he was born in – Sylvester, West Virginia.
Now, he’s a full time advocate for coal mine safety.
And against mountaintop removal.
He’s a volunteer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
And the Alliance for Applachia.
Nelson lives close by Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, where on Monday April 5, 2010, an explosion took the lives of 29 coal miners.
A number men in that mine that day were his friends.
He knew two of the miners who died.
“My childhood friend worked there,” Nelson told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “This friend I’m talking about – we grew up together in Sylvester. It’s a tiny town. We went through elementary school together. We went through junior high school. High school. We went and played ball together. We went to college together – Potomac State College.”
“We both ended up working at the same section for Montcoal Number 7. We hunted together. We fished together. We grew up just a few hundred yards apart from each other.”
“That Monday, April 5. I hadn’t seen my friend for a while. We had a funeral for my aunt that day – on Monday. He was a pall bearer for her.”
“When we got to the cemetery, after the ceremony, we sat and talked. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was working at Upper Big Branch. He said he’s still there. He said he was on the long wall. He said he recently left the long wall and was moved onto a miner’s section.”
“He said – as a matter of fact, I’m going to work now. I have to go to the house and get my work clothes.”
“He said he was going to work 14 more months and he was going to retire.”
“The last thing I told him – and I tell all of my miner friends this – I said to him – be careful. I know working in a Massey mine, you don’t know if it’s your last day or what.”
“It’s like that working in any underground mine. But the chances of working in a Massey mine are so much greater. You never know, it might be your last day. And the last thing I told him, I said – be careful.”
“He left. That was like one o’clock on Monday. I come home, and I haven’t been home an hour and I start seeing all of these ambulances going down the road by my house. And I make a phone call trying to find out what happened.”
“And the one phone call I made, someone said – the Upper Big Branch mine just blew up.”
“My heart just hit the floor. I got in my car and went up there. And I was trying to find out whatever I could about my friends.”
“And I was there for about an hour. And there were so many rescue vehicles, ambulances, and state police started pouring into the area. The state police made us leave, because they were securing an area off.”
“I couldn’t find out anything that day, because it was chaos.”
“The next day, I called my childhood friend. And I talked with him. And he said – you know, I made it back out.”
“He said – I was in a man trip when the explosion happened. He said – you could feel wind. And then you could feel the big huge concussion. And he said it blew him plum out of the man trip.”
“After it blew him out of the man trip, the dust was so thick, you couldn’t hardly see. But they could see the outside from where they were at when the explosion happened.”
“But he and the ones who were on the man trip made their way to the outside. And they got out. But he told me that if it had been five minutes earlier, he would have been in the kill zone.”
Nelson says that when he worked at Massey mines, he witnessed Massey taking down ventilation systems – to save money.
And he says he saw Massey deliberately tamper with coal dust monitors.
“On one occasion at Massey, a federal mine inspector was schedule to do a dust compliance. They were supposed to ride in with us, spend the entire shift with us, and go out with us. A dust pump measures how much dust you are working in. All of the workers had dust pumps on. They wear it on the side, it has a tube, you pin it on your shirt collar.”
“Dust is pulled up into it to see how much dust is in the atmosphere you are working in.”
“As the mine inspectors come up, the superintendent would say – hey, we’ve got lunch outside for you. Why don’t you come out and eat with us?”
“And they would send somebody out to pick up the mine inspectors and take them out.”
“Once they started going to the man trip to go outside, Massey would have one guy down there with his light turned off. Just watching. As soon as they got on the man trip and headed outside, he would inform the section boss that the mine inspectors were on their way out. And they would then come around and gather our dust pumps off of us, take them over and hang them up in the intake in the fresh air. And that’s where they stayed at until they got word that the mine inspectors are on their way back underground. Then they would make sure that the pumps were put back on the workers. When they went back up, it was like business as usual.”
After a long interview, in which Nelson gives details on how Massey cut corners on safety to save money, on how public sentiment shifted against Massey after the accident at Upper Big Branch, Nelson says he wants to add one thing.
“Let me say this,” Nelson says. “If anything ever happens to me or my wife, the focus ought to be on Massey or somebody affiliated with them.”
“I’ve been speaking out against how they operate in their mines.”
“There have been a couple others who have spoken out – but they haven’t given their names, or they are behind cameras,” Nelson said.
“Just recently, I’ve noticed that the head of Massey security has been paying visits to my neighbor about two or three days a week. His daughter lives nearby. And he’s been going up there for years. But since the explosion I’ve seen him sitting up at my neighbor’s house. He’s stopping over about two or three days a week. He’s just sitting out there talking.”
“I don’t think it’s just a coincidence. I believe he’s over there trying to get as much information about what I’m involved in.”
[For a complete transcript of the Interview with Chuck Nelson, see 24 Corporate Crime Reporter 20, May 17, 2010, print edition only.]
RUSSELL MOKHIBER is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter.