Massey Energy Looks to Transfer Survivors to Other Mines as Senate Begins Probe

April 6: West Virginia State Police officers direct traffic in front of an entrance to the Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal.

April 6: West Virginia State Police officers direct traffic in front of an entrance to the Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal.  (AP)

As a Senate panel trolled through various safety infractions during a hearing on Tuesday, the coal company being probed for the worst mining disaster in four decades is keeping its other mines operating with the help of survivors from the Upper Big Branch mine blast. 

Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine in Birchton, W.Va., where 29 miners died April 5, said it is trying to reemploy the men who survived the explosion in at least four other mines in the state.

Jeff Gillenwater, the company's vice president of human resources, said through a representative Tuesday that workers will be transferred to its other mines, including Marfork Coal, Elk Run Coal, Independence Coal, Mammoth Coal and others.

"Massey Energy has been able to place the vast majority of UBB miners at other mines," Gillenwater said in a statement.

But one survivor of the deadly blast told FoxNews.com on Tuesday that he's been left in the dark about the company's plans to assist its employees who are out of work.

"I really don't know what's going on," Stanley Stewart, 53, of Orgas, W.Va., said. "I know they placed some of them at other mines. I was called a week after it happened and was asked if I was ready to go back to work and I said 'no.'"

"I don't know if I'll be able to go back or not," he said.

Stewart was about 300 feet underground with nine other men when he said he felt a breeze followed by "gale force winds."

"The wind was so strong. I could feel my feet wanting to leave the ground," said Stewart, who was on his way to relieve the men who perished in the explosion. "There was lots of debris and dust in the air. I was on the edge of panic."

Raleigh County, W.Va., home to the Upper Big Branch Mine, is a struggling region with a median household income in 2008 of just over $30,000 and 18.8 percent of people living below the poverty rate. President Obama attended a memorial service Sunday for the 29 who died in the massive explosion.

The mining company, the fourth largest producer of coal in the United States, is under investigation over the deadly blast at Upper Big Branch mine, which had been repeatedly cited for improperly venting methane gas. 

The mine is still so full of methane that investigators say it will be a month before they can even go into the facility to see what caused the massive explosion.

The company, which has defended its safety record, was fined more than $382,000 in the past year for serious violations involving ventilation and equipment.

During its hearing Tuesday, The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee focused on provisions in the law that allow mine operators to challenge safety violations and delay penalties.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the committee, fiercely criticized Massey Energy Co., saying the coal mining giant had 515 safety violations last year alone.

"That's 76 percent more than the national average," Harkin said.  "This string of recent worker deaths and injuries is a grim reminder that too many employers cut corners on safety."

Joe Main, director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, also appeared before the panel and said the government will start going directly to federal court to shut down mines that make a habit of ignoring safety.  Main called for a slew of legal and regulatory reforms to beef up safety enforcement in the wake of the disaster.

"MSHA's current toolbox of enforcement measures is not well stocked to encourage prevention," he said. 

In its defense, Massey issued a statement last week saying that its company policy is to ventilate mines "substantially more" than required by law, give miners more training than required by law, give out an anonymous toll-free number for reporting safety concerns and an open door policy and does not terminate or discipline miners for speaking out about safety concerns.

But in advance of the hearing, Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work, said if the mines had been unionized, "those workers would have been able to voice concerns about the mine's hazards through their safety committee."

Stewart, who said he's been a coal miner for 34 years and that Massey bought "us" from Peabody Coal Company in 1994, declined to speak about the cause of the explosion. But he described several "problems" that he claims were widespread at Upper Big Branch.

"There were a lot of problems at that mine and have been for quite some time," he said, noting poor ventilation and an overworked and understaffed crew.

"They run short-handed intentionally and try to make miners do more than they should," he added.

On Monday, General Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong, a director on the Massey board, said the most important consideration for now is taking care of the families of the 29 miners who died. 

"Massey Energy is providing these benefits without requiring any family to settle any legal issues — we're doing it because it's the right thing to do," he said in a Monday press conference. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.