Judge Orders Massey Whistleblower Back To Work

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Chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Company Don Blankenship pauses as he testifies during a hearing before the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee May 20, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Federal administrative law Judge L. Zane Gill ruled that there is "substantial evidence to support a reasonable cause to believe" that Ricky Lee Campbell's repeated complaints about dangerous safety problems at another Massey mine prompted his termination.

The Massey Energy coal mine worker who filed a federal whistleblower complaint against the company has been ordered back to work temporarily.

Ricky Lee Campbell claimed that his complaints about safety got him fired. Campbell worked at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia until shortly before a massive explosion there April 5 killed 29 mine workers.

Federal administrative law Judge L. Zane Gill ruled that there is "substantial evidence to support a reasonable cause to believe" that Campbell's repeated complaints about dangerous safety problems at another Massey mine prompted his termination.

"I conclude that the complaint was not frivolously brought," Gill wrote.

Campbell drove coal shuttle cars and bolted mine roofs at Upper Big Branch and Massey's Slip Ridge Cedar Grove mine, which is also in West Virginia. In his complaint and in a hearing June 4, Campbell said he complained repeatedly about inoperable brakes and power pedals in the electric coal shuttle cars he operated at Slip Ridge.

"I was told it would be fixed," Campbell testified at the hearing. "But it was never fixed."

Campbell also was quoted in a video interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which he criticized conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine before the deadly explosion.

"This mine was one of the worst I've ever been in," Campbell told the Post-Gazette. "This place, it was real bad. ... I actually told my family, 'You know, somebody is going to get killed up here.'"

Campbell said he had been questioned by federal investigators looking into the Upper Big Branch accident.

The whistleblower complaint filed with the Labor Department said Campbell was fired for his role in the federal investigation, his critical comments to reporters and his safety complaints at Slip Ridge.

But Judge Gill ruled that the Slip Ridge complaints alone, and "the evidence of hostile, coarse and abrupt tone on the part of management is sufficient" to support Campbell's claim of retaliation.

Before the June 4 hearing, the Labor Department withdrew the claim that Campbell's cooperation with federal investigators contributed to his dismissal. The agency reserved the right to reinstate that portion of the complaint at a later date. Withdrawal of that claim kept an attorney for Massey Energy from asking probing questions about the federal investigation during the June 4 hearing.

The reinstatement order puts Campbell back to work temporarily at Slip Ridge in the same or equivalent position and with the same hours, benefits and rate of pay. Campbell's father, Rick Campbell, told NPR after the June 4 hearing that his son was desperate to return to work to pay his bills and support his fiancée and two young daughters.

It's now up to the Labor Department to seek permanent reinstatement. Gill gave the agency until July 26 to file that complaint.

Massey Energy spokesman Jeff Gillenwater says the company will continue to fight the whistleblower complaint and will appeal the temporary reinstatement order.

"We are not surprised by the order," Gillenwater says. "Miners who raise concerns are often reinstated until there can be a full and final hearing on the merits of their claim."

Gillenwater said Campbell was terminated "for acting unsafely and not for raising safety concerns."

Campbell testified that two costly accidents that briefly suspended coal production were caused by brake failure his supervisors failed to address. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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