Coal Tattoo

What caused the Upper Big Branch disaster?


President Barack Obama looks at a document spread across his desk during a meeting on mine safety with, from left, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administrator Kevin Stricklin, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main, Deputy Mine Safety and Health Administrator Greg Wagner, and Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis in the Oval Office April 15, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Multiple investigations are going to be gearing up soon, looking into exactly what happened to cause the deaths of 29 men at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., on April 5.

There is much left to learn. But we do know a few things already, and those were made pretty clear in the preliminary report provided to President Barack Obama last week by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main.


… Most mine explosions are caused by the combustion of accumulations of methane, combined with combustible coal dust mixed with air. Methane naturally occurs in coal seams, and coal dust is generated from the mining process.

And, we know how to prevent these kinds of explosions:

Because these combinations are so dangerous, MSHA requires every mine to ensure (through ventilation and rock dusting) methane and coal dust levels remain below the point at which they become combustible. In some cases, an initial blast can cause coal dust from the walls and floor of the mine to become suspended in the air, propagating the explosion. Historically, blasts of this magnitude have involved propagation from coal dust. When methane and coal dust levels are controlled, explosions from these sources can be prevented.


Explosions in coal mines are preventable. Mine operators use methane drainage and adequate ventilation to minimize methane concentrations. Operators can add sufficient rock dust to counter the explosive potential of coal dust. Operators can eliminate ignition sources, like electrical equipment that shed sparks. Barriers can suppress propagating explosions to mitigate their effects. But while mitigation efforts are laudable, the best approach is to prevent mine explosions from occurring in the first place.

In some ways, it all goes back to something that MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said during a briefing on April 6, the day after the explosion:

All explosions are preventable. It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring.