Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster

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The Upper Big Branch mine disaster occurred on April 5, 2010 at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine at Montcoal in Raleigh County, West Virginia. (In 2011, Massey Energy was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources.) Twenty-nine miners were killed[1] following an explosion 980 feet underground. Two miners were hospitalised. The accident was the worst in the United States since 27 miners were killed at Orangeville in Utah, in 1984.[2]

Contents

Explosion

The explosion occurred at 3:27 PM local time on Monday, April 5, 2010, at the Upper Big Branch Mine South near the community Montcoal, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Charleston. The mine was operated by the Performance Coal, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. High methane levels were detected, and subsequently an explosion from an unknown source occurred. Mine-safety experts said explosions are typically caused by high levels of methane produced during longwall mining, which mining companies try to dilute with ventilation systems, although Massey has been repeatedly cited for violating this requirement.[3] Twenty-five men were initially identified as killed. Four missing men were later found dead four days later for a total of 29 deaths. Officials have speculated that it may have been caused by a spark from a mantrip.[4]

Response to the disaster

On April 6, Massey Energy stated that the rescue effort for the missing miners has been "suspended due to conditions underground." It stated that "rescue efforts will resume as soon as conditions allow."[5] The following day, Massey Announced that the company has four drilling rigs on site "drilling bore holes approximately 1100 feet into the mine to bring the atmospheric conditions to a safe level that will allow the mine rescue teams to re-enter and continue their search and rescue efforts." One hole has been completed but with the others with a substantial way to go. By April 7, 11 of the deceased bodies had been recovered while 14 still had not, and four miners remained unaccounted for.[6]

According to press reports, the two safety chambers in the mine are inflatable units made with air, water, sanitary facilities, and food sufficient to support more than a dozen miners for about four days; they could possibly support four miners for longer than 96 hours, though only if any miners managed to reach a chamber after the blast. But late on April 9, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin announced that the bodies of the 4 miners had been found, bringing the death toll to 29. The miners had not made it to either of the safety chambers. Conditions were so bad in the mine that rescuers who were in the mine on the first day of rescue unknowingly walked past the bodies of the four miners.[7]

Following the disaster, Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, dispatched two committee staff aides to West Virginia to investigate the accident. Miller's committee oversees the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). In 2006 Miller succeeded in getting mine-safety reforms, which were initially supported by the National Mining Association, through the House but they lapsed in the Senate.[8]

On April 8, Massey informed shareholders that prior to the explosion the company had planned to ship 1.6 million tonnes of coal from the mine in the remainder of 2010. Massey stated that in its sale plan the coal would have been sold for $91.00 per ton. The company also stated that it planned to redeploy miners from the UBB mine to other mines to enable increased production elsewhere. However, it indicated that it did not anticipate that it could increase production from other mines to meet the shortfall from the mine closure.[9]

President Obama Blames Massey Management for Accident

President Obama Gives Eulogy for West Virginia Miners

On April 15, 2010 President Obama told reporters that he believed the accident could have been averted by Massey Energy management. "This tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch mine, a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue," said President Obama. The President added, "Owners responsible for conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine should be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take." Stronger mine safety laws were passed in 2006 ... but safety violators like Massey have still been able to find ways to put their bottom line before the safety of their workers, filing endless appeals instead of paying fines and fixing safety problems," President Obama said. Shortly after the accident President Obama ordered mine safety officials to report on the explosion, including the mine's safety record and what steps the government could take to prevent further disasters.[10]

On April 26, 2010, Obama delivered a eulogy for the miners (see video).

Settlement

On December 5, 2011, Massey owner Alpha Natural Resources said it will spend $209.5 million on fines, victim restitution and mine safety improvements to resolve enforcement actions and some criminal matters arising from the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. The settlement covers civil penalties and some limited criminal liability assumed by Alpha when it bought Massey Energy in June 2011. Under the settlement, civil penalties for the Mine operators, Performance Coal Co., would be resolved, as would potential criminal liability for the company. But the deal does not resolve any potential criminal violations by individual officers or agents of Performance Coal or Massey. This differs from a 2008 settlement, when then-U.S. Attorney Charles Miller settled civil and criminal matters concerning the January 2006 Aracoma Alma Mine accident by including an unusual promise not to prosecute any officers or employees of the Massey parent company.[11]

On December 6, 2011, the MSHA released a report concluding that the disaster was "entirely preventable," and was caused in part by a pattern of major safety problems and Massey's efforts to conceal hazards from government inspectors, all of which "reflected a pervasive culture that valued production over safety." Federal regulators cited 12 violations by the former Massey Energy that investigators believe contributed to the explosion, including the company's "unwarrantable failure" to follow federal rules governing mine ventilation, roof control, and the cleanup of highly explosive coal dust. Other contributory citations alleged a "reckless disregard" for requirements to perform periodic safety examinations and fix the problems identified, a systematic effort to warn underground workers of impending inspections and intimidate miners so they wouldn't complain about hazardous conditions.

In a deal worked out by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, Alpha agreed to pay $10.8 million to resolve civil penalties related to Upper Big Branch, as part of paying off $35 million in fines pending from former Massey operations. The fines are part of the larger, $209.5 million settlement announced hours before the release of the MSHA report.[12]

Investigation into cause of the explosion

April 2010: FBI begins criminal investigation

On April 30, 2010, AP and Reuters reported that the FBI had interviewed nearly two dozen current and former employees of Massey Energy in a criminal probe of the explosion, according to an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the inquiry had not been made public. The official said that in interviews the FBI is looking for any evidence that the company engaged in criminal negligence.[13]

The FBI probe follows strong statements two weeks prior in which President Barack Obama criticized the company. On April 15, Obama asked the secretary of labor to work with the Justice Department "to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation." According to Obama, "Safety violators like Massey have still been able to find ways to put their bottom line before the safety of their workers — filing endless appeals instead of paying fines and fixing safety problems."[13]

A Massey Energy statement called the president's remarks "regrettable" and said that "unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame."[13]

In July 2010, an electrician at the Upper Big Branch mine confirmed that he was ordered to bypass the methane detector on a piece of mining equipment. Such detectors are designed to automatically turn off a machine once methane reaches a certain level; with the detector bypassed, the machine would continue operating regardless of methane levels. The detector was on a continuous mining machine four miles from the origins of the explosion and was not thought to have played a role in the explosion. Investigators, however, are now looking to see if the practice of bypassing the detectors had happened in other areas of the mine, something that could point to wider questions about safety practices at the mine. Micah Ragland, spokesman for Massey Energy, confirmed that someone had bridged the methane monitor.[14]

Federal investigators first learned of the monitor bridging from Ricky Lee Campbell, a former Upper Big Branch miner who was fired from his job at another Massey mine after he publicly criticized safety practices at Upper Big Branch. Massey lawyers said Mr. Campbell was fired for violating a safety rule at the company's Marfork Coal Co., but in June 2010, Department of Labor officials won temporary reinstatement of Mr. Campbell after an administrative law judge ruled that he had actually been fired in retaliation for speaking out. According to Campbell, he and two other miners at Upper Big Branch saw a supervisor instruct Mr. Holtzapfel to run a wire that would bypass a methane detector on a continuous mining machine on Feb. 13 -- seven weeks before the blast. Campbell said Holtzapfel had protested the order, calling it improper, but was forced to make the bridge. When told of Mr. Campbell's account, Mr. Holtzapfel said, "That's how it went."[14]

Several hand-held methane monitors retrieved from the blast area have been sent to MSHA's laboratory in Triadelphia, W.Va. to see if the monitors contain any residual gas readings from the time before the April 5 blast. A federal grand jury in Charleston is expected to hear testimony from witnesses in the criminal phase of the Upper Big Branch investigation.[14]

Feb. 2011: Massey chief of security indicted

In Feb. 2011, a grand jury from the federal criminal probe into the explosion alleged that the chief of security for Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, of Clear Fork in Raleigh County, tried to obstruct FBI agents and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators looking into the mine disaster. The eight-page indictment alleges Stover lied to investigators about company policies and practices regarding warning mine personnel when federal safety inspectors arrived on site. It also alleges Stover tried to destroy thousands of pages of security documents investigators believe could shed light on how Massey handles such matters. He was was charged with two felonies.[15]

The filed indictment against Stover said FBI agents and MSHA special investigators have been looking into allegations that advance notice of inspections "had been given on a regular and continuing basis" at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Investigators discovered that there were multiple radio channels used by security guards at the mine. One was known as the "security channel," and another as the "Montcoal channel." Workers in the mine office could overhear transmissions on the Montcoal channel.[15]

Federal agents interviewed Stover about Massey's policies concerning advance notice of inspections. Stover told investigators that Massey subsidiary Performance Coal "had a practice and policy dating back to at least 1999 that forbade security guards at the Upper Big Branch Mine from giving advance notice of an inspection by prohibiting the announcement of the presence of MSHA inspectors ... over the Montcoal channel," the indictment said. Stover also told investigators he "would have fired any security guard who did not abide by the practice and policy forbidding announcement of the presence of MSHA inspectors over the Montcoal channel," the indictment said. The indictment alleges that those statements were "false, fictitious and fraudulent" because Stover "had himself directed and trained security guards" to give advance notice of MSHA inspections. The indictment charged him with making false statements, a charge punishable with up to five years in prison. The grand jury also alleged that Stover directed "a person known to the grand jury" -- but not named in the indictment -- to "dispose of thousands of pages of security-related documents" in a trash compactor.[15]

Stover was charged with concealing documents in a federal investigation, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. He was also charged with lying to investigators and destroying documents, both felonies, rather than the misdemeanor charge for advance notice of inspections. The Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety and Health Act would have made this kind of illegal conduct a felony and punishable by five years in prison or a $250,000 fine.[15]

September 2010: MSHA finds excessive coal dust

In September, 2010, it was reported that the search for a cause of the disaster had turned up evidence of excessive coal dust in the Upper Big Branch Mine. Analysis of 1,803 dust samples collected by investigators after the blast showed that 79 percent were not in compliance with federal coal dust standards, according to Kevin Stricklin, director of the coal mine division of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. The finding, Stricklin said in a press briefing, suggests coal dust has "more potential to be involved in the explosion."[16]

The sample results followed earlier reports that week stating excessive coal dust was seen in areas of the mine hit by the explosion a half-hour before the blast. Handwritten logs kept by two "fire bosses" - mineworkers who check for dangerous conditions before and after work shifts - noted excessive coal dust along conveyor belts as little as 30 minutes before the explosion. The logs were first obtained and reported by The Associated Press. Excessive coal dust is considered important in the investigation because the explosion traveled more than two miles, turning corners and spreading in opposite directions, suggesting the blast was fed, directed, and accentuated by an accelerant.[16]

Massey Energy continues to insist that the explosion was likely caused by a sudden and massive infusion of methane gas through cracks in the mine floor. But a recent lawsuit filed by Massey challenging the MSHA from preventing the company in doing its own investigation was dismissed by an administrative law judge. Two hundred thirty-five witnesses have been interviewed by MSHA, and investigators have 20 more people they'd like to question. But some are Massey managers who have objected to subpoenas issued by the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. Federal investigators do not have the power to compel testimony except in public hearings. Massey did not respond to requests for comment about its managers' resisting subpoenas. And Ron Wooten, the director of the West Virginia mine safety agency, said through a spokeswoman he had no comment.[16]

September 2010: New compliance rules on coal dust issued

On September 21, 2010, MSHA director Joe Main announced plans to require underground mines to do more to control explosive coal dust under an emergency rule. The announcement came amid mounting evidence that coal dust played a role in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in April. The change will raise to 80 percent the amount of pulverized stone or other inert material mines use to dilute coal dust in air intake tunnels, the same amount already required in return tunnels. Currently intakes need just 65 percent. Main says MSHA's change is based on federal research that shows decreasing the amount of coal dust in air intakes can prevent explosions.[17]

October 27, 2010: Massey counters coal dust finding

In October 2010, Massey management stated that coal dust did not play a role in the disaster, as government investigators previously stated. Computer models and other evidence, said CEO Don Blankenship, suggested methane gas alone fueled the mine explosion, which remained at odds with government findings.

"We don't feel like that we contributed in any way to the accident," he said. "We do not believe that coal dust was a meaningful factor."[18]

December 2010: FOIA shows miner did safety checks with forged foreman card

In December 2010, it was reported that Massey miner Thomas Harrah said he used a forged foreman’s card to perform more than 200 pre-shift, on-shift, and conveyor belt safety inspections at the mine, according to documents obtained by The Charleston Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act. Harrah had been employed by Massey at the Upper Big Branch mine from January 2008 to August 2009, until state investigators learned that Harrah’s certification number belonged to another individual. By then, Harrah was working at another Massey Operation -- again under a certification number belonging to a different individual. The report said that while Harrah had a state license to work as a coal miner, he was unable to pass the test to become a certified mine foreman, who perform safety checks.[19]

Board members in March 2010 suspended Harrah's mining license for a year. Harrah was later charged with one count of falsifying required mine safety documents, for when he signed a Dec. 16, 2008, safety examination report at Upper Big Branch using a fake foreman's certification number. The charges also allege that Harrah made "false, fictitious and fraudulent statements to federal agents" on Oct. 22, 2010, when he told FBI and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration agents that Performance Coal had given him a foreman's certification number.[20]

On April 12, 2011, Harrah appeared in federal court in Beckley to enter a guilty plea to federal charges, saying he had been dishonest with the FBI and MSHA in the first interview.[21]

January 2011: Broken water sprayer system at mine seen as factor for explosion

Feds: Poor Maintenance in Deadly WVa Mine Blast

On January 19, 2011, federal mine safety officials said that a water-spray system that helps suppress explosive coal dust wasn't functioning properly when the Massey Energy Co. coal mine blew up. Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, also said the carbide cutting teeth on a piece of mining equipment inside the mine had worn down, which can increase the number of sparks from the machine. The worn bits likely caused an initial methane ignition, he said. The water sprays and cutting teeth are part of a massive cutting machine at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine, called a longwall mining shearer that would grind back and forth across the coal seam.[22]

Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel, said the company found that after the explosion eight out of 44 sprays on the shearer were missing. MSHA officials said they believed the explosion occurred at the shearer, and that a small ignition of methane burned for 60 seconds to 90 seconds before reaching coal dust and exploding through the mine: "We think it was small and then turned into a coal-dust explosion," said Mr. Stricklin. He said the agency hasn't entirely ruled out a roof fall or a conveyor belt as a source of the initial ignition,[22] but an attorney with the investigation, Mark Moreland, said of the revelations that the mine had "conditions that created a circumstance that allowed an explosion to happen, which never should have happened. This operation was not operated according to law and was, in fact, if all these circumstances are true, operating in an illegal fashion."[23]

According to NPR: "Some of NPR's sources point to two additional cracks back toward the headgate of the longwall but close to the shearer. One is a newly discovered crack found between two of the floor-to-ceiling shields that protect the machine and the miners from falling rock as they work. These sources describe a scenario in which methane from that crack migrated to the tailgate, bypassed the shearer and its methane detectors, then turned back into the spinning and sparking shearer."[23]

Shortly before release of the information, the Obama administration backed off its promised public hearings on the disaster, and said it will not release witness statements taken as part of its closed-door inquiry. Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith attributed the decision to a request from U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who said he fears public discussion about the disaster "could hinder" his ongoing Department of Justice criminal investigation.[24]

Massey disputes MSHA findings

On January 28, 2011, Massey Energy publicly rejected nearly every part of the federal government's theory on what caused the explosion. Vice President and General Counsel Shane Harvey said Massey doesn't believe that worn shearer bits, broken water sprayers or an excessive buildup of coal dust contributed to the blast. Instead, the company continues to argue there was a sudden inundation of natural gases from a crack in the floor that overwhelmed what it insists were good air flow and other controls that should have contained the blast. Harvey acknowledged the shearing machine that cuts the coal may somehow have ignited the gas, but said the company's own investigators haven't determined how. Massey won't issue its own report on the explosion until after state and federal investigators release theirs.[25]

April 2011: MSHA had approved reduction in mine air flow

During a private April 26, 2011 meeting between families of some of the Upper Big Branch miners and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA officials revealed that in late 2009 the agency approved a reduction in the amount of air flow Massey was required to provide to ventilate the working face of the mine’s longwall mining section. The change was made when Massey’s Performance Coal Co. brought the longwall machine back to Upper Big Branch (it had been moved to another mine a few years earlier) in August 2009. When Upper Big Branch used the longwall previously, MSHA required the company to be sure to have air volume of 60,000 cubic feet per minute flowing toward the longwall face. Under the new plan, approved in August 2009, Massey proposed — and MSHA approved — required air flow of 40,000 cubic feet per minute. The familes wanted answers for why the agency approved a reduction in the ventilation required for the longwall at UBB. Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s coal administrator, said an internal review is looking at to find out why.[26]

May 2011: Independent study faults Massey

Davitt McAteer on Massey Report

In May 2011, the first comprehensive state report on the 2010 explosion faulted Massey Energy for the disaster, concluding that it had “made life difficult” for miners who tried to address safety and built “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable.”

The report, issued by an independent team appointed by the former West Virginia governor, Joe Manchin, and led by the former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, echoed preliminary findings by federal officials that the blast could have been prevented if Massey had observed minimal safety standards.

But the report also used blunt language to describe what it said was a pattern of negligence that ultimately led to the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010: “The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris,” the report concluded. “A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking.”

The report opens with a passage about the fear that one miner felt the day before he died in the disaster: “Man, they got us up there mining, and we ain’t got no air,” the miner, Gary Wayne Quarles, told his friend Michael Ferrell, who talked to investigators. “I’m just scared to death to go to work because I’m just scared to death something bad is going to happen.” The report goes on to say that a “perfect storm” was brewing inside the mine, combining poor ventilation, equipment whose safety mechanisms were not functioning and coal dust, which, contrary to industry rules, had been allowed to accumulate, “behaving like a line of gunpowder carrying the blast forward in multiple directions.”

The investigators also took issue with the conclusion offered by Massey officials — that the explosion occurred when a giant burst of methane bubbled from the ground, a natural event that would have been impossible to predict or control. The damage inside the mine was not consistent with that theory, investigators said, as only two workers who died had methane in their lungs. The report went on to say that “If, as Massey investigators maintained, one million cubic feet of methane had been suddenly released, the result would have been a five million cubic foot flame going across the face and throughout the tailgate entries in both directions. Evidence found during the investigation does not suggest a force of this magnitude.”[27]

The report also noted that most of the miners killed had black lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). The report stated: "Of the 29 victims, five did not have sufficient lung tissue available to make a determination relating to CWP: two due to massive injury and three due to autolysis. The remaining 24 victims had sufficient tissue for examination. Seventeen of the 24 victims’ autopsies (or 71 percent) had CWP. This compares with the national prevalence rate for CWP among active underground miners in the U.S. of 3.2 percent, and the rate in West Virginia of 7.6 percent."[28]

Eighteen current and former Massey officials, including Don Blankenship, former chair and CEO, invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when subpoenaed by investigators. A nineteenth Massey official, chief of security Hughie Elbert Stover, is charged with three felonies that allege he lied to federal officials, destroyed records [29] and tried to divert government agents investigating whether Massey officials tried to warn mining operations in advance of impending federal inspections.[30]

June 2011: MSHA finds Massey faked safety reports

In June 2011 federal investigators reported that Massey Energy managers pressured coal miners to fabricate safety reports to mislead inspectors before the 2010 disaster. Kevin Stricklin, the assistant administrator of coal at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said his agency’s investigation of the April 2010 blast found duplicate books on daily mine operations. On several occasions in the months before the blast, the books didn’t match: one set told inspectors there were no serious issues while internal reports revealed many hazards, he said. According to Stricklin, Massey managers had to countersign books at the Upper Big Branch mine and knew that the hazards, from low air flow to high levels of explosive gas, went unreported: "This explosion could and should have been prevented by the mine operator."

Massey agreed in January 2011 to be acquired by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (ANR) for $7.1 billion. Ted Pile, an Alpha spokesman, said the company would look at the agency’s conclusion as part of a separate probe of the fatal blast: “We heard this information for the first time from MSHA at the same time everyone else did,” Pile said in an e-mail.

A West Virginia investigator said in a May 2011 report that Massey is to blame for the fatal explosion at the mine. MSHA plans to complete its own investigation in fall 2012.[31]

December 2011: MSHA Report finds deaths were "entirely preventable"

On December 6, 2011, the MSHA released a report concluding that the disaster was "entirely preventable," and was caused in part by a pattern of major safety problems and Massey's efforts to conceal hazards from government inspectors, all of which "reflected a pervasive culture that valued production over safety."

Federal regulators cited 12 violations by the former Massey Energy that investigators believe contributed to the explosion, including the company's "unwarrantable failure" to follow federal rules governing mine ventilation, roof control, and the cleanup of highly explosive coal dust. Other contributory citations alleged a "reckless disregard" for requirements to perform periodic safety examinations and fix the problems identified, a systematic effort to warn underground workers of impending inspections and intimidate miners so they wouldn't complain about hazardous conditions.

MSHA also cited more than 350 other violations that it did not categorize as contributing to the disaster.

In a deal worked out by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, Alpha has agreed to pay $10.8 million to resolve civil penalties related to Upper Big Branch, as part of paying off $35 million in fines pending from former Massey operations. The fines are part of a larger, $209.5 million settlement announced hours before the release of the MSHA report.[32]

History of Safety Violations at the mine

W.V. Coal Mine Had 53 Safety Violations In March Alone

The non-unionized Upper Big Branch mine lies beneath a vast expanse of Massey-operated mountaintop removal surface mines.[33] According to Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) data, the Upper Big Branch mine has had six violations related to ventilation since January and four since March 17, including for failing to control coal dust; improperly planning to ventilate the mine of dust and the combustible gas methane; inadequate protection from roof falls; failing to maintain proper escapeways; and allowing the accumulation of combustible materials.[34]

In 2009, the mine had 50 "unwarrantable failure citations," the most serious findings of negligence a mine inspector can issue, and more than ten percent of the enforcement actions taken by MSHA at the mine, as compared to about two percent at mines nationwide.[35] MSHA had proposed penalties of $900,000 in 2009 resulting from 458 total safety violations at the mine.[3]

Since January 1, 2010, the MSHA has issued Performance Coal 115 safety violations for the Upper Big Branch mine. For six of the past ten years, it has exceeded the national average in safety violations.[33] There have been three other fatalities at the Upper Big Branch mine in the last 12 years.[36]

According to an April 6, 2010 article in the New York Times: "In the past two months, miners had been evacuated three times from the Upper Big Branch because of dangerously high methane levels, according to two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat whose district includes the mine, said he had received similar reports from miners about recent evacuations at the mine, which as recently as last month was fined at least three times for ventilation problems, according to federal records."[37]

In response to the long list of safety violations at the mine, Massey CEO Don Blankenship said: "Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.” Around 2 a.m. on April 6, Blankenship arrived at the mine to announce the death toll to families who were gathered at the site. Escorted by at least a dozen state and other police officers, Blankenship prepared to address the crowd, but was shouted down as the crowd accused him of caring more about profits than miners’ lives. After another Massey official informed the crowd of the death toll, one miner threw a chair. Several people yelled at Blankenship that he was to blame before he was escorted from the scene.[37]

According to West Virginia resident and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition activist Maria Gunnoe: "These [mine safety] violations are public, and they often don’t surface or get talked about until something like this happens. And that’s a part of the problem here. Massey Energy is allowed—is being allowed to get by with these violations, and in some cases they’re not even made to correct these problems. They’re allowed to send these men back into unsafe situations. And it has created an extremely unsafe environment for these miners."[38]

In a March 2010 Prospectus, Massey lists as a risk factor that "the Mine Safety and Health Administration or other federal or state regulatory agencies may order certain of our mines to be temporarily or permanently closed, which could adversely affect our ability to meet our customers’ demands."[39]

In particular, it states that the "MSHA or other federal or state regulatory agencies may order certain of our mines to be temporarily or permanently closed. Our customers may challenge our issuance of force majeure notices in connection with such closures. If these challenges are successful, we may have to purchase coal from third party sources to satisfy those challenges, negotiate settlements with customers, which may include price reductions, the reduction of commitments or the extension of the time for delivery, terminate customers’ contracts and/or face claims initiated by our customers against us. The resolution of these challenges could have a material adverse impact on our cash flows, results of operations or financial condition."[39]

According to the New York Times, Massey was able to get around the safety regulations implemented by the 2006 MINER Act by aggressively and consistently challenging the company's many violation citations. Unresolved challenges were part of the reason the Upper Big Branch mine was removed from the "potential pattern of violation" list in 2007. Had this not happened, the Mine Safety and Health Administration would have had more power to shut down the mine until the safety violations were resolved.[40]

March 2011: MSHA wont release documents related to previous Massey methane explosions

The Charleston Gazette has contacted the MSHA for records of its actions after two significant “methane outbursts” at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2003 and 2004. Federal and state investigators have been looking at those incidents as part of their probe of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch. On March 10, 2011, MSHA sent a two-page letter, in which the agency mostly denied the FOIA request — refusing to release roughly two-thirds of the records concerning those incidents. MSHA did, however, provide 149 pages of records mostly consisting of citations — and 13 pages consisting of the reports on the 2003 and 2004 incidents that were already obtained from other sources — but no records that explain what, if any, follow up was done by either Massey or MSHA to ensure no repeats of the methane incidents. MSHA withheld 272 pages of records, citing Exemption 7 of the federal Freedom of Information Act, meant to protect records that, if released, might interfere with ongoing law enforcement proceedings.[41]

Massey CEO Don Blankenship

Don Blankenship: Friends of America Rally

Don Blankenship has served as a director of Massey Energy Company since 1996, and has been Chairman and Chief Executive Officer since November 30, 2000. He also serves as a a director of the Center for Energy and Economic Development, a director of the National Mining Association, Mission West Virginia Inc, and is on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce board of directors.[42][43] He is also a member of the American Council for Clean Coal Electricity.[44]

Washington political journalist Michael Tomasky claims that Blankenship is "famous in West Virginia as the man who successfully bought himself a state supreme court justice in 2004 and then tried to buy himself the state legislature, failing spectacularly at the latter effort."[45]

Blankenship is outspoken in declaring that climate change is a hoax. At a public speech to the Tug Valley Mining Institute on Nov 20 Blankenship called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid and former Vice President Al Gore "crazies" and "greeniacs" and stated, "I don't believe climate change is real." He referred to the support of President Jimmy Carter for energy conservation in the 1970s to communism: "Buy a smaller car? Conserve? I have spent quite a bit of time in Russia and China, and that's the first stage." In a letter to the editor of the Charleston (WV) Gazette dated Oct. 30, 2009 Blankenship denied that global warming exists, and stated: "Why should we trust a report by the United Nations? The United Nations includes countries like Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran." [46]

In 2009, Blankenship, along with other members of the the US Chamber of Commerce like Verizon, sponsored the 2009 “Friends of America Rally.” The rally was to drum up public support against calls for government regulation of mountaintop removal mining. The rally is seen as having the same type of support as Tea Party Patriots.[47]

In November 2010 Blankenship spoke to reporters in West Virginia where to shifted responsibility of the blast to Federal regulators. "The underdog in this situation is not the government. The underdog is not MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration)," Blankenship asserted. "The underdog is the coal industry and the [coal] companies. So, to the extent you want to root for the underdog you need to root for the companies, because we're definitely powerless when it comes to the government."

Blankenship urged the reporters to focus attention on the safety inspectors, officials and mine disaster investigators with the federal MSHA.[48]

July 2010: Massey CEO Don Blankenship offers no apology for disaster at the National Press Club in Washington, DC

Rainforest Action Network (RAN) attended Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s National Press Club speaking event on July 22, 2010. RAN disrupted Blankenship's talk by holding signs that stated "Massey Coal: Not Clean, Safe or Forever". The focus of the protest focused on Massey's moutaintop removal strip mines and their ongoing safety violations which led to the death of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in West Virginia. The protesters were escorted out by security.

“Massey is the BP of the coal industry: reckless, arrogant and an obstacle to the clean energy future that the president and the country is calling for,” said Amanda Starbuck of the Rainforest Action Network in a press release about the action. “The bottom line is that clean, safe and forever are three words that Massey Energy can never credibly say.”[49]

Rather than discuss any regrets over the Massey Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, Blankenship used the speaking event to discuss the need for less federal government regulation, among other topics. Additionally, Blankenship said mountaintop removal was actually bringing "more wildlife" and "more wetlands" to Appalachia, and he dismissed reports that Massey miners live in fear of him: "We feel very good about what we've achieved in the area of communication with our employees." As an example, he said the reason that all six recent union drives at Massey mines have failed was that the miners know how much the company cares about them.[50]

In an interview later that day on Bloomberg Television’s “InBusiness,” Blankenship said increased scrutiny from MSHA puts miner safety at risk because the coal industry’s engineers are better than government: “The feeling of the industry is that we’re regulated too much and not too little. Tragedies lead to more regulation." According to Blankenship, Massey miners are experiencing a “psychological” impact in the aftermath of the accident that’s affecting production: “It’s impacting production in that people are trying to make sure they’re in compliance with every rule."[51]

Massey, Blankenship, and Unions

Don Blankenship: "Sell Coal Cheaper And Drive Union Coal Out of Business"

In 2008, the company had 6,743 employees.[52] Of these, only 1.3% -- or approximately 87 -- were represented by the United Mine Workers of America. In a March 2010 prospectus, Massey stated that union members were "spread out amongst five of our coal preparation plants" which handled "approximately 15.8% of our coal production." However, the company states that the "collective bargaining agreements with the UMWA have expired" and that "there are no ongoing negotiations" at present.[39][53]

The company, particularly under Don Blankenship, has actively worked to suppress union membership, preferring to pay legal fees than hire unionized mine workers.[54]In a 1986 film documenting his role in stopping striking miners at Massey operations in Appalachia (see video), Blankenship was frank about his goals to destroy unionization, in order to sell coal cheaper: "non-union competitors have a tremendous advantage and therefore they sell coal cheaper and drive union coal operations out of business."[55]

The United Mine Workers once represented nearly 90 percent of the U.S.'s 400,000 mine workers in the 1960s, but in 2010 represents less than a third of the remaining 10,000 or so coal miners. Part of the decline has been attributed to Blankenship, who was a division manager for Massey in the mid-1980s and helped run a successful, aggressive campaign to destroy the union's role in the company's mines in Appalachia, reminiscent of the early days of coal mining when miners were harassed and intimidated from joining unions. According to truthout, the United Mine Workers tried three times to organize the Upper Big Branch mine, but even with getting nearly 70 percent of workers to sign cards saying they favored union membership, Blankenship personally met with workers to threaten them with closing down the mine and losing their jobs if they voted for a union.[56]

According to former Massey miner Chuck Nelson, not being part of a union "means that the worker, when he was told to do something, you cannot file a grievance. You had to more or less do what they say—what they tell you to do, or else they’ll tell you, 'Well, we have a man to replace you for the next day. You can just go home. You don’t need this job anymore.'”[57] A report from the March 28, 2007, hearing on Protecting the Health and Safety of America's Mine Workers released by the House Committee on Education and Labor, found that less than one-fifth of coal mining fatalities occurred in union mines.[58]

Past Massey Disasters

Aracoma Alma Mine accident

Massey pleaded guilty to criminal violations for a January, 2006 fire at the Aracoma mine in Logan County, WV, which took the lives of two miners. In that accident, Massey officials had reportedly removed key ventilation walls, or stoppings, allowing smoke to enter that primary escape tunnel - a move that U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver said "doomed two workers to a tragic death."[34]

In an internal memo to employees that was used in the Aracoma mine trial, Massey's CEO Don Blankenship openly declared: "If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e. build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal," the complaint quotes the memo. "This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills."[34]

Martin County Sludge Spill

The Martin County Sludge Spill was an accident that occurred after midnight on October 11, 2000 when the bottom of a coal sludge impoundment owned by Massey Energy in Martin County, Kentucky, broke into an abandoned underground mine below. The slurry came out of the mine openings, sending an estimated 306 million gallons (1.16 billion liters) of sludge down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. By morning, Wolf Creek was oozing with the black waste; on Coldwater Fork, a ten-foot (3 m) wide stream became a 100-yard (91 m) expanse of thick sludge.[59]

Jack Spadaro, then the head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, investigated the spill and reported negligence on the part of Martin County Coal, a subsidiary of coal giant Massey Energy, and lax enforcement by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. According to Spadaro, the slurry pond had a spill in 1994 and Massey knew another break was nearly inevitable.[60] Spadaro’s former boss at Mine Safety, Davitt McAteer, defended Spadaro, telling 60 Minutes that major coal sludge fatalities are avoided only "by the grace of God," and that officials expected a report that recommended violations, fines, and possible criminal charges.[60] After Bush took office McAteer was replaced. Spadaro was accused of abusing his authority, and was reassigned to a Pittsburgh office four hours from his home. He resigned.[60]

Coal mine safety regulations

Massey official appointed to the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2002

During his terms, former President George W. Bush cut funding for mine safety enforcement by $15 million and replaced Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials, such as Davitt McAteer who supported Jack Spadaro's investigation of Massey's Martin County Sludge Spill, with representatives of corporate interests. In 2002, Bush named former Massey Energy official Stanley Suboleski to the MSHA review commission that decides all legal matters under the Federal Mine Act. David Lauriski, the former head of MSHA, spent 30 years as an executive in the mining industry before being tapped to head the agency, and resigned in 2005 to work for a mine-industry consulting company. The next head of MSHA Richard Stickler, appointed by Bush in September 2006, was a former manager of Beth Energy mines. The Bush administration also cut 170 positions from MSHA.[61]

In 2006, federal regulators overhauled mine safety laws for the first time in over three decades with the MINER Act. The overhaul was in response to the deaths of 19 miners in a series of accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky, including the Aracoma mine that brought criminal charges against a subsidiary of the Massey Energy Company.[62] However, when Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee that oversees the MSHA, tried to strengthen safety regulations with the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) Act in 2007, the bill eventually died in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.”[63]

Mining Industry Invests in Politicians to Stop Mining Safety Law

In April 2010 MapLight.org released data on the United States Mining Industry's donations to politicians. As MapLight explained:

  • In June of 2007, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) introduced the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) Act, which, according to the Congressional Research Service, would have supplemented existing mining provisions in the Federal Mine Act to require: "(1) emergency response plans to incorporate new technology; (2) the Secretary of Labor to require the installation of rescue chambers in underground coal mines; and (3) accident response plans to provide for the maintenance of refuges." Miller chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, which issued a report stating: "The S-MINER Act aims to prevent disasters and, in cases where disasters do occur, to improve emergency response. It also aims to reduce long-term health risks facing miners, such as black lung." Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) explained the bill was necessary because the 2006 MINER Act provisions had not been effectively enforced. “So far, I am concerned that the slow pace of reform is leaving America's miners at risk. We've made progress. But [the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA)] has not moved aggressively to implement all of the provisions of the MINER Act.”[64]
The House passed the S-MINER Act in January 2008 but the bill died in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, chaired by Sen. Murray, met to consider the bill but no action was ever taken. MapLight.org reports:
  • For the House vote, 25 House Democrats and nearly all House Republicans voted against the bill. On average, House opponents received 103 percent more money from mining interests than House members voting Yes (an average of $12,526 to each member voting No, $6,174 to each voting Yes). Democrats voting No received 197 percent more money from mining interests than their colleagues voting Yes (an average of $16,314 to each Democrat voting No, $5,489 to each voting Yes).
  • Seven House Republicans, including West Virginia's Shelley Capito, supported passage of the bill, although they received little campaign funding from unions, the primary interest MAPLight.org found to be supporting the bill.[64]

Below is a table that shows the contributions (2003-2008) from Interest Groups that supported and opposed the S-MINER Act to members of the Senate HELP Committee in the 110th Congress.[64]

Critics argued that the passage of the bill may have prevented the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in West Virgina.[65]

Contributions (2003-2008) from Interest Groups that Supported and Opposed the S-MINER Act to Members of the Senate HELP Committee in the 110th Congress

Senate HELP Committee Member Party State State Rank in Mining Production $ From Supporting Interest Groups $ From Opposing Interest Groups
Isakson, John Republican GA 20th $0 $97,500
Murray, Patty Democrat WA 32nd $42,000 $74,141
Hatch, Orrin Republican UT 6th $0 $73,350
Murkowski, Lisa Republican AK 10th $0 $72,850
Enzi, Michael Republican WY 3rd $0 $68,600
Burr, Richard Republican NC 26th $0 $63,449
Alexander, Lamar Republican TN 28th $0 $45,800
Roberts, Pat Republican KS 25th $0 $40,300
Bingaman, Jeff Democrat NM 16th $10,000 $33,400
Clinton, Hillary Democrat NY 24th $24,500 $22,700
Coburn, Thomas Republican OK 31st $0 $22,299
Gregg, Judd Republican NH 47th $0 $11,800
Dodd, Christopher Democrat CT 44th $18,500 $9,000
Allard, Wayne Republican CO 12th $0 $7,500
Obama, Barack Democrat IL 19th $29,500 $7,000
Brown, Sherrod Democrat OH 21st $65,250 $6,000
Harkin, Thomas Democrat IA 33rd $23,850 $5,550
Mikulski, Barbara Democrat MD 29th $26,000 $4,500
Reed, John Democrat RI 49th $11,000 $4,000
Kennedy, Edward Democrat MA 39th $4,500 $0
Sanders, Bernard Independent VT 48th $46,800 $0
Total $301,900 $669,739

2010 Labor Department Report on MSHA Practices

After the disaster, California Democrat and chairman of the House Labor Committee George Miller said he planned to introduce changes to mine health and safety laws. Miller and other lawmakers sought an investigation into MSHA after the April 2010 disclosure that a computer error prevented MSHA from notifying Massey that the Upper Big Branch mine may be placed under a so-called “pattern of violations” enforcement. On June 23, 2010, the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General issued a report finding that the U.S. mine safety regulator has failed to subject mines with repeated violations to the “enhanced oversight” required when an operator shows disregard for miner health. The report noted that MSHA in 2009 restricted the list of mines with recurring violations because of resource limits, removing 10 for reasons that do not appear to be appropriate. The department asked MSHA to immediately re-evaluate the 10 mines removed from the 2009 list. Miller said the report raises questions about adequate funding for MSHA’s regional offices to enforce the law.[66]

On June 23, 2010, Massey sued MSHA over requirements for ventilation at the West Virginia Upper Big Branch Mine mine. The company said MSHA had rejected a system that would have aided workers, and instead forced installation of a complex ventilation system in an area where miners were working when the explosion occurred.[67]

2010 MSHA Acting Chief of Staff Jeff Duncan is the one who put former MSHA inspector Jack Spadaro on administrative leave, while Spadaro was looking into criminal negligence involving Massey in the Martin County sludge spill.[68]

June 2010: Democrats Draft Measure to Tighten Coal-Mine Safety

In June 2010, Democrats in Congress began drafting legislation that would make it easier to shut mines with repeated safety violations, such as the Massey Energy coal mine, where 29 miners died in an April explosion. Regulators are seeking to change a system in which Massey and other mining companies appeal safety violations to delay or avoid safety enforcement actions. The bill would boost penalties for some types of violations and add protections for whistleblowers who report safety lapses, as the Massey Upper Big Branch Mine mine had been cited for deficiencies in the ventilation system and for buildups of combustible coal dust before the explosion. The measure would expand subpoena powers of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and broaden pay protections for miners who are out of work when violations lead to a mine being shut. The bill would also revamp the process for declaring that a mine had a pattern of violations, which subject the operator to stepped-up enforcement. It would also require mine operators to pay penalties in a timely manner, and give MSHA the power to subpoena documents and testimony. Under the proposed legislation, the mine-safety agency could seek a court order to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to the health and safety of miners. The agency could also require more training of miners in unsafe mines.[67]

Lawsuits

Miner Griffith's Family Sues Massey

On April 15, 2010, the estate of miner William I. Griffith filed a wrongful death case in Raleigh Circuit Court against Performance Coal, Massey Coal Services, and Massey Energy. Griffith, 54, had been working for Performance Coal since 1992. He and his wife, Marlene Griffith, would have been celebrating their 33rd wedding anniversary on April 30. Griffith began working as a coal miner in 1974, shortly after he graduated from high school.[69]

Lawsuit says miners initially survived blast

In April 2011, a new suit was filed on behalf of the estate of miner William Roosevelt Lynch, one of seven miners killed while on their way out of the mine on a mantrip when the explosion ripped through the Massey Energy operation. After the explosion and the failed rescue effort, officials including Gov. Joe Manchin said the "rescue workers told us that they can assure us no one suffered because [the explosion] was so instantaneous." The new lawsuit, though, alleges that isn’t correct, and that Roosevelt Lynch and the other miners on the mantrip — Carl Acord, Benny Willingham, Robert Clark, Jason Atkins, Steven Harrah, and Deward Scott — actually survived the initial explosion: "Upon information and belief, William Roosevelt Lynch, and other miners riding on the man-trip vehicle did not perish instantly from the explosion originating near the longwall face." Davitt McAteer, the special investigator looking into the Upper Big Branch explosion, told the Charleston Gazette that he confirmed his team’s probe has found that the miners on the mantrip survived the initial blast and that Blake tried to save them all. McAteer declined further comment, because the details of the incident have not yet been shared with the families of the miners who died.[70]

May 2011: Massey offers $3 million settlement to families

On May 4, 2011, Massey said it made a settlement offer of $3 million to each deceased miner's family, and seven families had agreed to its offer. Five families had filed wrongful death suits against Massey. The settlements for four of those families had been approved by West Virginia courts, the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission regulatory filing. Massey has not turned a profit since the accident. The company reported May 2, 2011 that it had a first-quarter net loss of $7.7 million, or 7 cents a share. The company agreed in January 2011 to be acquired by Alpha Natural Resources (ANR) for $7.1 billion.[71]

Shareholders Sue Massey

On April 15, 2010, Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust - which owns 1,000 shares of Massey Energy stock - sued Massey and its board of directors, alleging the Upper Big Branch explosion shows the company is neglecting safety measures, which has hurt the company's financial standing. The lawsuit was filed in Kanawha Circuit Court.[72]

The shareholder derivative lawsuit names Massey, Don Blankenship, all current board members, former member Gordon Gee, the company's chief operating officer, chief compliance officer, general counsel, and its senior vice president of group operations. Shareholder derivative lawsuits generally allege that mismanagement of a company is decreasing the company's value, which hurts shareholders.[72]

In addition to lost production, the lawsuit maintains that "the company is almost certain to face securities fraud lawsuits, state and federal investigations, fines, heightened regulatory scrutiny, loss of goodwill, and reputational harm."[72]

Nike Ad

In September 2010, NIKE began running an ad with a background of a massive strip-mine or mountaintop removal operation to display their Pro Combat football uniforms. Nike's campaign was marketed as a "tribute to the hardworking people of the Mountain State, as well as the fallen miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in April." But instead of featuring underground miners, such as those who died at the Upper Big Branch disaster, Nike's ad featured an open strip mine with a dramatic voice over: "It's just the way things are done in West Virginia." After people objected to the ad as unrelated to the disaster and a glorification of mountaintop removal, NIKE agreed to modify it.[34]

Upper Big Branch Miners

Twenty nine miners were killed in the disaster. The following slideshow and tribute focuses on those that lost their lives:

  • Christopher Bell
  • Edward Dean Jones
  • Ronald Lee Maynor
  • Joe Marcum
  • Greg Brock
  • William "Griff" Griffith
  • Ricky Workman
  • Howard "Boone" Payne Jr.
  • Steven J. Harrah
  • Benny Ray Willingham
  • Carl "Pee Wee" Acord
  • Deward Allan Scott
  • Robert E. Clark
  • William R. Lynch
  • Jason Atkins
  • Joe Price
  • Mike Elswick
  • Adam Morgan
  • Tim Davis
  • Cory Davis
  • Richard Lane
  • Rex Mullins
  • Nick McCroskey
  • Josh Napper
  • Dillard Persinger
  • Gary Wayne Quarles
  • Grover Skeens
  • Kenneth Chapman
  • James Mooney

Evidence of black lung disease

In May 2013 a team of pathologists and lung disease experts reviewed lung tissue obtained from autopsies of seven of the Upper Big Branch victims. (Only seven families of the deceased coal miners granted permission for the study.) They said six of the seven samples had scarring indicating black lung. One of the samples showed a "fairly advanced form of the disease."

High rates of black lung in the Upper Big Branch victims were first found during autopsies just after the explosion. The West Virginia medical examiner told mine disaster investigators that 24 of the victims had sufficient lung tissue for testing. He concluded that 71 percent had black lung, a rate 10 times the average for southern West Virginia.[73]

Mine to be sealed

On May 2, 2011, it was reported that Massey Energy was seeking federal regulators’ approval for a plan to permanently seal the Upper Big Branch Mine.[74]

Resources

References

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Related SourceWatch articles

External resources

Mine Safety and Health Administration webpage on the disaster

Massey Energy Media Releases

West Virgina Governor's Statements

White House Statement

External articles