The Battle for Coal Mine Safety

Minness Justice worked for 16 years in the coal mines.

Then, in 1992, he took a $60,000 cut in salary to go to work for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

He was forced out of MSHA in December 2008.

Why?

“I was considered unmanageable,” Justice told Corporate Crime Reporter last week. “That was the word that was used to describe Minness Justice. That basically meant – I did what I was supposed to do. I didn’t give a crap who I upset.”

Massey was the worst company he inspected.

After a while, MSHA kept Justice away from Massey mines.

Why?

“Because I would shut them down,” Justice said. “Massey would say that I was a mine killer. When I showed up, you might as well get ready to leave because I was going to shut it down.”

Why would you shut them down?

“Because they were horrible,” Justice said. “They simply would not comply with the law. They were exceptionally bad compared to other mines. They would just let their mines go. They didn’t employ enough people to keep their out by areas up in their coal mine.”

What is an out by area?

“Out by means the areas out by the active working section. Those are areas not directly related to producing coal in the face.”

“They were not concerned with their out by areas. They were only concerned with their production areas. And you cannot run a mine without keeping your out by areas up. You can’t keep up ventilation, you can’t keep water, you can’t keep your belts running.”

“And the only time of the day they would keep people on these areas was when they got so far out of control that they wouldn’t function.”

One mine that Justice did inspect – Massey’s Aracoma mine – where two miners died after a mine fire in January 2006.

Following the fire, MSHA conducted an internal investigation into how the mine was inspected.

They interviewed Minness Justice for six days.

“When I finished the internal review – which is basically about how I and MSHA handled Aracoma Coal – I was congratulated by the 12 or 14 people doing that internal review,” Justice said. “I provided an answer to every question they asked, without hesitation. I provided them with all the documentation they needed to complete their report. And they congratulated me for my work. They shook my hand. They said I did a great job. I had written a lot of citations in the areas they were concerned with.”

“Then that report went behind closed doors. And from my understanding, Richard Stickler, who was in charge of MSHA at that time, sent word down through Kevin Stricklin, who is an assistant administrator now – that he wanted Minness Justice fired at all cost.”

“They gave the job to Robert Hardman – who is coincidentally the district manager right now in District Four – who was responsible for the inspections of Upper Big Branch. Hardman took that internal review report behind closed doors and came out with a tremendous amount of evidence against me that I did not perform my job very well.”

“You have to understand. They had evidence in that file, notes, that were not even my notes. They were some other inspector’s notes. They had evidence saying that I did not make certain areas of the mine. But I produced citations I had written on that exact spot.”

“It was a botched attempt to get rid of me. That’s why they had to make a deal with me. I tore apart their evidence and made them eat it. They did not want to go to court.”

Justice says that almost everyone at MSHA involved with overseeing the Aracoma mine left the agency after the fire and deaths.

But Justice refused to leave.

“They transferred me and another inspector – Eddie Paynter – to the Mine Academy at Beckley, where we taught mine rescue for about six months.”

“They then decided they wanted to put us on administrative leave.”

Justice was on administrative leave for a couple of years.

“Everybody who was involved with the Aracoma mine at the MSHA field office in Logan retired. Two supervisors retired. The ventilation specialist retired. Another inspector retired. The district manager in MSHA retired.”

“I was the last person standing. I would not quit. I would not retire. And they tried to fire me twice. But they rescinded those decisions.”

“They wanted to make a deal to keep me from suing them. They came up with a deal that was very nice for me. In that deal, I had to agree that I would not sue MSHA or any of the managers within MSHA. And for that, I retired with full benefits. I have a better retirement than I would have had I worked 30 years for them. And I only worked 20 for them.”

“I retired in December 2008.”

In addition to Massey and MSHA, Justice has harsh words for almost everyone involved else in coal mine safety.

Cecil Roberts – head of the United Mine Workers Union?

“He’s nothing but a showboat,” Justice said. “I don’t know why Congress would even call Cecil Roberts to testify with Massey CEO Don Blankenship. I don’t think there is any effort to organize any Massey mines. So, why should he have a dog in the fight simply because he is head of a union that is dying?”

Former MSHA head Davit McAteer, who is heading West Virginia’s investigation into the Upper Big Branch deaths?

“I have respect for him, but I suspect that he’s letting Joe Manchin use him.”

Congress?

“Congress is not going to do anything. Congressman George Miller came in and made a big show in Beckley. But it’s just politics. Nothing will change. And many miners down here feel the same way.”

Justice holds out little hope that things will be different in the Upper Big Branch investigation.

“And I’m not saying this to be mean to anyone,” Justice said. “All of the families are going to go through a period of grief. Six months or a year. Perhaps longer.”

“But these are working people. They work from day to day, from payday to payday. And these people are going to get more money than they have ever seen in their lives.”

“I would venture to say that 20 to 25 of the families will not pursue much against Massey. They are going to want this thing to go away. They will be satisfied with a botched investigation by MSHA. Once they get this stuff behind closed doors, they can write it any way they want. Because that is exactly what they did with Aracoma.”

“I went through the interviews. And what the interviews produced was not what the report said. Once it gets behind closed doors, the people at MSHA will write this the way they want.”

RUSSELL MOKHIBER is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..

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