The Massey Mine Disaster: Now what?

April 6, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

Mine Explosion

Well, the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., already ranks as the worst mining disaster since 27 workers were killed in a fire at Utah’s Wilberg Mine in December 1984.

And my coworker Gary Harki is reporting from the scene that federal and state officials fear the death toll could go higher — with four miners still unaccounted for and MSHA’s Kevin Stricklin calling their situation “dire.”

So what happens now?

The top thing to be watching is the rescue efforts, which were temporarily halted early this morning because of dangerous gas levels in the mine. Rescue crews are starting the process of drilling boreholes down into the mine, to help try to stabilize the atmosphere there and make it safe for rescue teams to resume their search.

As I reported earlier, we got somewhat conflicting accounts on this effort early this morning in a briefing by Stricklin and Ron Wooten, West Virginia’s mine safety director — with Wooten sounding much more optimistic than Stricklin about the four miners’ chances.

Gov. Joe Manchin, ever the optimist — but also a veteran of these situations, having lost his own uncle in the 1968 Farmington disaster — had this to say early today:

We are still in that rescue operation mode. With that being said, three holes have to be drilled. The best I can tell you is that it’s going to be a very long day.

APTOPIX Mine Explosion

Meanwhile, the other things to watch through the course of today and beyond:

Massey’s safety record: This is sure to get lots of attention, given the company’s long history of problems (subscription required), the criminal prosecution following the Aracoma Mine fire, and MSHA records that indicate there were growing concerns at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

What exactly caused this explosion: There were early reports — not officially confirmed by government officials — that the explosion may have come from inside or around a sealed area of the Upper Big Branch Mine. If that turns out to be true, it makes this disaster terribly similar to the Sago Mine disaster and the Kentucky Darby disaster, and raises major safety questions about sealed areas in mines across the coalfields.

Along with that, what kind of investigation are we going to have: MSHA has authority under federal law to investigate the disaster through a public hearing, but the agency has always hesitated to do that, opting instead for closed-door interviews. After Sago, Gov. Manchin brought in former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer as a special investigator and ordered a week-long public hearing into that disaster. What will Manchin and MSHA do now, especially given that Obama MSHA chief Joe Main has been an advocate of his agency being more transparent?

Finally, this disaster was a huge test of whether the MINER Act reforms went far enough: There was hope late last night that the miners had reached a cache of self-contained self-rescuers and perhaps then made their way to one of two mine rescue chambers — two important pieces of rescue equipment that were added because of the MINER Act and state laws passed after Sago, Aracoma and Darby. And Congressman Rahall praised what he said was a very fast response by mine officials and government agencies, another big difference from the 2006 disasters.

On the other hand, something that jumped out at me was when Stricklin explained during a briefing this morning that the new communications and tracking system had only been “partially installed” at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

In a story a few weeks back, I explained that only one in 10 U.S. coal mines had so far met the communications and tracking requirements of the MINER Act.  That story took some heat from Randy Harris, a consultant for the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training. Randy felt I was unfair to the industry in West Virginia, where companies have for the most part moved to comply with a separate state law requiring communications and tracking equipment.

Sadly, though, the Upper Big Branch disaster indicates the importance of a difference between the West Virginia law and the MSHA regulations that grew out of the MINER Act … specifically,  West Virginia rules require companies to track whether miners have entered a working section of the mine, but not exactly where they are on the section. By contrast, MSHA requires more specific tracking of where the miners are on the section — information that might be helpful right about now at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Ron Wooten, director of mine safety in West Virginia, explained the state’s law during a briefing this morning:

West Virginia law requires that we know when people are momving onto a section. It doesn’t require that we track them on a section.

And Stricklin explained the MSHA requirement, and how it not being met yet by Massey Energy could have been a problem:

We know how many people are in that area, but we don’t know their exact location.


19 Responses to “The Massey Mine Disaster: Now what?”

  1. Scott14 says:

    May the blessed virgin mother be with these familys during this time. Sadly, as more and more production is driven underground by the EPA and enviromental lawsuits. More and more accidents will befall our underground mines as less experienced miners go to work in marginal, at best, seams.

  2. blue canary says:

    Really? We’re not even waiting for the rescue operations to be over before we start politicizing this tragedy? Classy.

  3. Ned says:

    Sustained outrage!

  4. boscobear says:

    Perhaps Massey should spend spend more money on miner safety and Mr. Blankenship become more concerned that Massey Mines are safer and concentrate less on trying to buy Supreme Court seats for his friends.

  5. BlackHatLou says:

    Until the fines are commensurate with the violations, we will continue to see this type of incident. It is a whole lot easier for Blankenship to pay thousands in fines than millions in compliance.

  6. Austin Hall says:

    My thoughts and prayers go out to those touched by this tragedy.

    -Austin

  7. Austin Hall says:

    Ken,

    Is there anything we can do to help from outside the coalfields. Is anyone accepting donations for the families of the victims?

    Thanks,
    Austin

  8. Industry Watcher says:

    Referring to the second point of the cause of the explosion: This brings back to mind the recent dangerous levels found and “covered up” at the Patriot Mine in the northern part of the state. This is the same mine that Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor toured, and afterwards stated was a mantle of safety in the industry. Weren’t those reports also stating that the levels of methane were well into dangerous levels in areas that were supposedly sealed off?

    I feel for the families, and for the hardworking folks at Massey who genuinely DO make every effort at safety, but I am curious to see, as this story unfolds, if similar falsified documentation will be exposed.

    I believe that these kinds of practices do occur every day, in many more mines than we are willing to believe.

    Ken, thank you for your dedication and your hard work keeping this blog going, and giving access to people with opinions.

  9. hdj says:

    I don’t feel that Scott14’s comments are out of line in the least.
    While I’m certainly not going to blame Obama or the EPA for this tragedy, their policies will serve to drive coal mining back underground, or to western states, and with that, the fatalities will certainly go up.
    No matter the technology and safety equipment made available, underground mining is exponentially more dangerous than surface mining. The recently announced policies of the EPA may or may not have been implemented with miner safety in mind, but it will bring that issue to the forefront.
    A democratic government, by its own design, must strike a balance in almost all things. Mabye this tragedy will go to show that everything will have its price, including the newly announced policies of the EPA.

  10. RJS12 says:

    God bless the families of this tragedy!

    I truly wish GREED was not such a driving force in US business today. The reported facts around the partially completed safety upgrades regarding the Miner Act – for many mining companies – that West Virginia State standards are not as stringent as the Miner Act, and with the seemingly disregard for human life in SOME companies and in local government in tragic – and immoral.

    SHAME on you Massey… and the State of West Virginia! I hope you are completely shut down and big lawsuits occur!

    “Sadly, though, the Upper Big Branch disaster indicates the importance of a difference between the West Virginia law and the MSHA regulations that grew out of the MINER Act … specifically, West Virginia rules require companies to track whether miners have entered a working section of the mine, but not exactly where they are on the section. By contrast, MSHA requires more specific tracking of where the miners are on the section — information that might be helpful right about now at the Upper Big Branch Mine.”

  11. Elizabeth Fraser says:

    Thank you Mr. Ward for such a good summary. We are lucky to have a journalist with your background working on this story.

  12. blue canary says:

    So if the Dept of Interior cuts back public grazing lands in the West, making steak more expensive, causing people to eat more chicken, and people get sick from salmonella, that’s Interior’s – and not the USDA’s or the chicken factory’s – responsibility?

  13. not so sure says:

    Surface mining may not be associated with catastrophic events such as the Massey mine disaster, but I wonder whether it actually destroys more lives in the long run. The difference is that mountaintop removal kills people (and other life forms) in slower ways.

    It is human nature to pay attention to sudden, tragic events such as mining accidents and airplane crashes while ignoring things that take more lives, such as air pollution and car accidents.

  14. GP says:

    May our Lord bless and keep those lost and their families, and make his countenance to shine upon them, and give them peace.

    Now, how about the ongoing safety violations that may have led to this tragedy? Maybe its time to start criminally prosecuting somebody for safety violations and giving them jail time. When inspectors, bosses and operators face possible jail time, maybe then they’ll take safety more serious. Quit spending big bucks on TV commercials and more on safety…

  15. Chris says:

    Hark the song of holy rapture,
    Hear it break from yonder strand
    Where our friends for us are waiting,
    In the golden summer land;
    They have reached the port of glory,
    O’er the Jordan they have passed,
    And with millions they are shouting,
    Home at last, home at last:
    And with millions they are shouting,
    Home at last, home at last;

    O, the long and sweet reunion,
    Where the bells of time shall cease;
    O, the greeting, endless greeting,
    On the vernal heights of peace;
    Where the hoping and desponding
    Of the weary heart are past,
    And we enter life eternal,
    Home at last, home at last:
    And we enter life eternal,
    Home at last, home at last.

    Look beyond, the skies are clearing;
    See, the mist dissolves away;
    Soon our eyes will catch the dawning
    Of a bright, celestial day;
    Soon the shadows will be lifted
    That around us now are cast,
    And rejoicing we shall gather
    Home at last, home at last:
    And rejoicing we shall gather
    Home at last, home at last.

  16. Vernon says:

    Austin asked about donations for families. WV Council of Churches accepts online donations at http://www.wvcc.org.
    Nuttin’ Fancy restaurant in Whitesville is feeding rescue workers and families and is accepting donations, checks made out to Nuttin’ Fancy, P.O. Box 452 Whitesville, WV 25209.

  17. john brown says:

    Mining is and always will be a high risk profession. Surface mining of all aggregates and coal are regulated under the same MSHA. Underground mining is regulated with standards a surface miner would believe un attainable. That is why they have so many more inspections per year and the fines are higher.
    Every mine gets fines and or citations at every inspection. The problem is that every inspector looks at different specific areas of the process. MSHA needs to send an army of inspectors instead of a few who are looking for violations in there area of expertise.
    I am only talking in terms of a surface rock miner.But I think you can never make underground coal mining a non”extreme” hazard job! Without makeing it more expensive to extract than the ore is worth.
    It will always be a job of hazard that only the few and proud american men will do.
    May god bless them all and their families too. You show me a coal mine without any violations in a two year period and I will say they have a political connection.

  18. daniel says:

    I think massey need to stop mining coal at all mines untill the 4 miners are found . Just to show respect for thier families.

  19. wesley says:

    My heart goes out to the families left behind….I know its a dark and troubled time….And in an event such as this the suffering is left for the living…I burried a son when I was 23 years old…I know the hurt these families are feeling…Words dont ease it one bit…I wish it did I would write you a book…I dont know much about the mines ( or details to the explosion) but I agree if there was wrong doing then the company and anyone involved should be punished….And Massey should have shut down for the families in one aspect, but in the other I have a new son and need to work for him and my wife….A single loss of life in the mines is tragic for the simple fact someone hurts ….But remember that there is other who depend on mining to live also…..May GOD be with those left and you find peace in these troubled times

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