Massey cited for blasting at Coal River Mountain

November 11, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


Office of Surface Mining photo of surface mine blasting at an unidentified mine.

It’s been widely reported that Massey Energy late last month started blasting at its Bee Tree Mine on Coal River Mountain, the site where environmental groups have proposed a wind energy facility as an alternative to mountaintop removal.

But last week, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection quietly cited Massey subsidiary Marfork Coal Co. for using too large a load of explosives in its blasting operations at Bee Tree.

Here’s what the notice of violation, issued Nov. 4 by WVDEP inspector Sandra Duncan, said:

Blaster scaled to a gas well instead of the two-inch gas line that was closer to the blast. Failure to use the closest structure caused the allowed maximum weight of explosives to be detonated in any eight millisecond period to be exceeded.

What does that mean?

Blasters use  formulas — called “scaled distance” formulas — to calculate how much explosives they can use.  Using these formulas, the weight of explosives is “scaled” based on the distance from the blast site to the nearest structure (buildings, gas lines, water lines and others).

Tom Clarke, director of the WVDEP Division of Mining and Reclamation, told me this morning that his inspectors discovered Massey had used a gas well at the mine site as its “nearest structure” for purposes of its blasting formula. Clarke said WVDEP inspectors found, though, that an underground gas pipeline was actually closer to the blast site and should have been used. Clarke said:

The blasts were in compliance if the well was used, but not if the gas line was used.

Clarke was not able to provide more detailed information on how the distances involved varied between the gas well and the gas line. And, he wasn’t sure exactly how many blasts exceeded their allowable weight, based on the incorrect “nearest structure” being used in the scaled distance formula.

WVDEP inspectors discovered the problem when reviewing the blasting logs Massey and other mine operators are required to maintain to document their use of explosives to blast apart hilltops and uncover coal reserves for mining.

The WVDEP violation notice listed the following as the required “remedial measures”:

Scale to the closest structure and use GPS to obtain accurate distance on subsequent blasts.

But it also said:

Blast logs are to be corrected by Blaster-in-Charge using proper procedures, i.e., striking thru incorrect information, writing correct information to side and initialing correction.

I’m not sure what that means, and Clarke wasn’t immediate able to tell me. (Before anybody comments on that … keep in mind that today’s a government holiday. I appreciate Tom calling me back several times to try to answer the questions I had about this).

Updated, 3:15 p.m.:

Tom Clarke from WVDEP kindly explained to me, after consulting with his staff, that the second remedial measure I listed referred to requiring Massey to amend its blasting log to reflect both the incorrect blasts and what those blasts should have been like if the correct formula had been used.

Clarke did downplay the incident, though:

Given the nature of what happened, we don’t believe any members of the public or employees of Massey were in any danger, but they were still in violation.

I’ve sought comment today from Massey Energy, but have not heard anything back yet from them.

Massey has had at least one serious problem previously concerning the location of underground gas lines on its surface mining sites.


On Feb. 1, 2006, at Massey subsidiary Elk Run Coal Co.’s Black Castle Mine in Boone County, bulldozer operator Paul Moss was killed when his dozer hit a gas line and caught fire (see photo above). U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials concluded:

The accident occurred because mine management directed the bulldozer to work in close proximity to a known but unlocated active gas line. Although aware of the gas line and potential hazard, mine management did not accurately locate and mark the gas line before directing the bulldozer to operate in the area. This exposed the bulldozer operator to a hazardous condition. Additionally, failure to conduct required on-shift examinations contributed to the accident in that the hazardous condition was not properly identified and corrected.

MSHA fined Elk Run Coal $60,000, the maximum allowed at the time by federal law. The company is appealing.

Interestingly, Clarke told me that Massey officials wrongly thought they had obtained a waiver to not use the gas line as their “nearest structure.” Under state blasting regulations, such waivers may be granted by WVDEP, but only if they are sought before blasting.

That kind of reminded me of when the Manchin administration mistakenly said more than a year ago that Massey had all the required permits for the Bee Tree operation, but within a few hours, WVDEP was correcting the governor’s office and pointing out that all the permits weren’t approved yet.

UPDATED, 2:50 P.M.

I received this statement from Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater via e-mail:

The NOV was the result of a 7 millisecond delay, instead of an 8 millisecond delay, between two holes that were part of the overall shot. Both air and vibration readings were well below allowed limits. The issue has been addressed and proper procedures put in place to eliminate this from occurring in the future.

10 Responses to “Massey cited for blasting at Coal River Mountain”

  1. […] Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Massey cited for blasting at Coal River Mountain – view page – cached Office of Surface Mining photo of surface mine blasting at an unidentified […]

  2. Casey says:

    I don’t know how much closer the line was to the blast than the well but I’d guess this was a really minor violation with no immediate danger to the environment or to the public. This is obvious from DEP’s remediation measures. And as such it’s not worthy of a report.

    If you read the history on how the ground vibration standards where determined you’d see that that was a lot of conservatism incorporated in the limits. Plus it is very common for gas companies to grant waivers to allow a much looser standard for blasting near their wells and lines. Again indicating that they are not too worried about blasting damage to their assets from the regulatory standard.

    In my opinion this report, especially the way it incorporated a tragic fatality, shows that Massey is being singled, bad-mouthed, badgered and pestered. Especially from a company that recently is the first mining company ever to receive three of the mining industry’s most prestigious safety awards in one year.

  3. […] Ken Ward reports: “But last week, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection quietly cited Massey subsidiary Marfork Coal Co. for using too large a load of explosives in its blasting operations at Bee Tree.“ […]

  4. Marcie says:

    Thank you for reporting this.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Coal Tattoo reported on Massey winning those safety awards. Perhaps you missed that:

    That report pointed out, as you can see, that not me — but the AP — noted that Massey also was recently warned that it may have committed a pattern of violations at two of its operations in West Virginia.

    I’m not sure I would ever post a story pointing out something a coal company did wrong that you would find serious or worthy of reporting. Do you think the violation cited by MSHA in the death of Paul Moss was serious?

    Regarding this blasting NOV … you have to wonder, given the high-profile nature of this particular mine, how Massey would allow even what you consider a minor violation… and how DEP wouldn’t catch it immediately, instead of two weeks after blasting started.

    Perhaps it is common for gas companies to provide the waivers, but as mentioned in my story, that hadn’t been approved by WVDEP yet in this instance.


  6. Casey says:

    I think the Office of Blasting within DEP does the inspection of the blasting records and this is done at each site, only on a periodic basis.

    A blaster has a lot of responsibility in loading, wiring, securing, detonating , clearing and reporting of a shot. I’d guess that if this shot was an exam the blaster would make a 99%. He made a small error that fortunately did not cause any harm to the environment or to humans. A small human error on one shot, of which he probably does maybe 8-10 per week.

    You are correct in that I think it was trivial and should not in any way been used to re-report on a past fatality at a different mine in an unrelated event. That’s just my opinion but thanks for the opportunity to express it.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    You’re welcome. I appreciate your very frequently posts … but I do wonder if you could ever admit that a coal company made anything more than a trivial error.

    The error here, according to WVDEP, was that the company believe it had obtained a waiver that it never obtained. That seems like a very, very easy thing to check — and I would think on a site where lots of folks are watching, it would have been triple-checked.

    But you didn’t answer my question: Do you think the violations cited in the death of Paul Moss were serious? Or were they just another minor mistake?


  8. Casey says:

    Ken, I had sent you the same e-mail 2 or 3 times regarding a discussion of safety and injuries. Did you ever get it? I’d rather answer your question via e-mail but you might have me directed to your junk drawer. Look under junk-science-denier type, pro-coal dummy.

    Even if they had a waiver, the mine would probably still have a less restrictive limit and they would still have to report the distance to the nearest protected structure and the scaled distance limits for the lbs of explosives detonated in each 9ms time frame. So I still think the error is in reporting the distance measured to the closest protected structure. The scaled distance is an option rather than employing a seismograph.

  9. scott 14 says:

    This is really a non issue. All the blaster needs to do is put one more delay in his pattern and all is well. As far a buried gas line being, the nearest PROTECTED structure, there is a difference. This seems to be nit picking by the oeb. As a man who deals with explosives I have never seen a piece of fly rock go further than 6″ into the ground. As for the comparison of the fatality and this minor violation. One was a paper work issue, the other a man lost every thing he had and every thing he will ever have. If this blog is going to explore every little violation in the surface mining industry, you might want to get some help.

  10. […] November 4, the West Virginia DEP “quietly cited Massey subsidiary Marfork Coal Co. for using too large a load of explosives in … While one citation is a good first step, the youth brought a letter to the EPA stating, “We […]

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