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Lawmaker presses Alpha for answers on mine safety

Read more : http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- U.S. Rep. George Miller continued this week to press Alpha Natural Resources for answers about what steps Alpha is taking to reform safety practices at the mining operations it acquired when it purchased Massey Energy last month.

The California Democrat, ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, wrote to Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield to seek more details on Alpha's "Running Right" program and Alpha's review of prior Massey practices.

In the Wednesday letter, Miller outlined the findings to date of federal investigators looking into the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster regarding ignoring safety hazards and intimidation of miners who have safety concerns.

"This indicates a deeply rooted 'normalization of deviance,' and it is imperative to find out whether this pattern and practice infected other Massey mines that Alpha acquired," said the letter, also signed by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif.

The letter posed a number of questions to Crutchfield, including:

* Has Alpha investigated whether any former Massey managers who discouraged mine examiners from recording safety hazards in the mine examination books at UBB are presently on Alpha's payroll? How many of those individuals, if any, are on your payroll, and what steps has Alpha taken, if any, to ensure these individuals no longer continue this practice of discouraging proper recording of hazards?

* Has Alpha identified whether any other Massey mines had a practice of providing advance notice of MSHA or state inspections? If so, please provide a list of such mines where this practice was carried out.

* Would Alpha support legislation to increase sanctions against mine operators who repeatedly intimidate miners in violation of the anti-retaliation provisions in the Mine Act?

Also, the letter questioned Crutchfield about a sign posted at the Upper Big Branch Mine, now owned by Alpha, which encouraged workers not to join the United Mine Workers union.

"Should we assume that anti-union animus is also a component of Alpha's 'Running Right' business philosophy at its unrepresented mines?" the letter said. "This is puzzling since recent academic research shows that unionized mines now have lower fatality rates than non-union mines."

Miller and Woolsey had previously written to Crutchfield to question why Alpha was keeping among its staff several top Massey officials who had responsibilities overseeing the Upper Big Branch Mine.

In a June 20 letter, Crutchfield had confirmed that at least one of those former Massey executives, Chris Adkins, would not be joining Alpha.

Crutchfield said that two other Upper Big Branch officials, Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead, are employed by Alpha, but in "technical and support roles" that allow them no direct oversight of mining operations.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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