Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis
Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
Upper Big Branch Final Report Presentation
Beckley, West Virginia
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Good afternoon, everyone. On April 5, 2010, the worst American coal mining disaster in 40 years took place here in West Virginia. On April 6, I came and sat vigil with the family members and loved ones of the miners who were trapped underground. We all prayed for a miracle that never came.
The explosion at Upper Big Branch claimed 29 lives and forever changed so many more. As we all came to terms with the scope of the tragedy before us, I made a promise to the family members and to the community that my department would conduct a far-reaching investigation into the root causes of this explosion that would be sweeping in its scope. I promised that we would pursue every lead and spare no expense to learn what happened at UBB and honor the lives that were lost. I promised that we would follow the evidence, wherever it took us, until we arrived at the truth, however upsetting that truth might be. And I promised that that I would return to West Virginia to personally deliver our findings.
A few hours ago, I sat with the families and fulfilled this solemn promise. They are the reason I'm in Beckley today. I am inspired by their resilience and courage. And I want to thank them for their patience as we worked diligently to complete our comprehensive review.
Now, I want to introduce to you two outstanding public servants on my staff. Joe Main is our Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. He leads the Department of Labor's Mine Health and Safety Administration. Joe is joined by Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal mine health and safety. They will present a detailed report on the findings of our investigation and stay here to answer all of your questions.
But before I continue, I know many of you have heard about the agreement announced today between the U.S. Department of Justice and Alpha. We're encouraged that Alpha is making investments in mine safety and research and has agreed to promptly pay Massey legacy penalties and the record fines levied by MSHA this morning. However, that does not change the task before us, nor does it diminish the serious nature of the violations that our investigation uncovered.
Earlier today, MSHA issued 12 citations and orders for violations of the Mine Act that directly contributed to the explosion at the south mine at Upper Big Branch. MSHA determined nine of these violations to be "flagrant." These are the most serious type of violations that MSHA can issue. Flagrant violations are eligible for the highest penalties possible under the Mine Act.
MSHA also issued 357 separate violations of the Mine Act for conditions and practices at UBB that did not directly contribute to the explosion. For these infractions, MSHA levied fines of more than $10.8 million the largest penalty issued in the agency's history.
Here is what we found: The 29 miners who lost their lives at Upper Big Branch died in a massive coal dust explosion that began as a methane ignition. The explosion was entirely preventable. The conditions that led to the explosion were the result of widespread safety violations at UBB. Our investigation uncovered systemic and intentional efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards. The root cause of this tragedy was a series of unlawful policies and practices implemented by PCC/Massey.
Company officials disregarded serious safety hazards and enforced a workplace culture that valued profits over people. Had top officials adhered to basic safety practices, the explosion would have been contained or prevented, and we believe lives would have been saved.
Our investigation found that PCC/Massey used its security staff to alert mine personnel when safety inspectors arrived at the mine. This allowed violations to be concealed, so no corrective action would be ordered. Our investigation also uncovered evidence that miners were intimidated by management into remaining silent about safety violations, at the risk of losing their jobs.
The Mine Act requires operators to keep a set of detailed books that denotes health and safety hazards. PCC/Massey kept two sets of books a doctored set that omitted hazards and violations, which was shown to inspectors and employees and a second set of books that recorded hazards, which was for management's eyes only.
Joe and Kevin will speak about the investigation and the violations in greater detail. I want to commend MSHA personnel and the staff from our Solicitor's office. They worked tirelessly to give the victims' families some measure of closure. DOL attorneys logged more than 21,000 hours to conduct this investigation. Some relocated and lived here in Beckley to carry out their critical work. Joe and Kevin will tell you what they learned... and how.
But before I go, I want to share what I learned. I'm from California, where we don't have many coal mines. But from my multiple trips here, from countless conversations with the mining families of West Virginia, and from hours upon hours spent with MSHA staff, here's what I know to be true: The work that miners do is hard. I learned that mining families are unique. They are the keepers of a proud inter-generational tradition in America. They have a bond that is special and unbreakable.
Here is what else I know to be true: Mines can be safe. Mining can be a safe job. The 29 miners who lost their lives didn't have to die. We know that most mining operations comply with the law. But we condemn the outliers who cut corners and endanger lives in the pursuit of greater production and profits.
America must learn from this loss. My hope is that this investigation and the public discussion that will ensue will lead to key safety improvements in other mining operations. If this happens, then other families can be spared the grief that the Upper Big Branch community has been forced to endure. That is my hope, and that is the obligation of every company that employs America's miners.
God bless the families of those we lost. God bless this community. And God bless our miners.