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Families and colleagues of the Massey mine workers killed in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine are alleging that Massey Energy Co. used a system to alert workers of the presence of safety inspectors. Federal investigators are looking into the matter, according to comments by the Mine Safety and Health Administration on Monday. The new attention comes after testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee.
Tim Huber, of the Associated Press, reported the testimony of a number of those who spoke out against Massey before the committee. Witnesses testified about alleged attempts to warn mine workers of inspectors and encourage them to cover up possible safety violations. Witnesses testified about a number of other hidden issues with improper ventilation and combustible materials. One witness called the West Virginia mine a "ticking time bomb." The investigation into the April 5 Massey mine explosion comes after 29 miners died in the worst coal industry disaster in 40 years.
"When a MSHA inspector comes onto a Massey mine property, the code words go out, 'we've got a man on the property,'" alleged Gary Quarles, father of Gary Wayne Quarles, who died in the blast. "Those words are radioed from the guard gates and relayed to all working operations in the mine."
Such statements are significant beyond the allegations themselves. Any cover up would be a violation of federal regulations and would likely lead to lawsuits, both from private citizens and the government. MSHA chief Joe Main told the Associated Press that warning of a mine inspection is a civil violation of federal mining law. Earlier this month the Secretary of Labor filed several lawsuits alleging that workers were being tipped off about inspections.
Massey denies tipping off workers and said that the company is cooperating with investigators, and that safety comes first.
"Our focus remains on providing for the families affected by this tragic accident and cooperating with state and federal agencies to determine its cause," the company said in a statement.
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