Documents: Massey board was warned about rock-dusting problems at Upper Big Branch Mine

May 26, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Massey Energy Co. Chairman and CEO, Don Blankenship, second from right, attends a press conference with board directors, from left, Robert Foglesong, Bobby Inman, and Stanley Suboleski, Monday, April 26, 2010 at in Charleston, W.Va.(AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

The documents made public in the Delaware shareholder derivative case against Massey Energy management provide an incredible glimpse inside Massey. It’s likely that the records currently being held under seal by West Virginia’s Supreme Court are even more fascinating and important — for understanding how the coal industry works and how the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster could happen.

Here’s just one example … Turn to page 19 of the Massey defendants’ legal brief in opposition to the motion for a preliminary injunction to block the Alpha Natural Resources merger:

In a further effort to address violations at Massey’s operations, the Board and management enlisted the help of a third-party auditing firm, Pavlovich & Associates, to conduct safety audits of individual mines and make recommendations on how to address issues identified during those audits.

Specifically, Pavlovich was asked to focus its attention on “target mines” based on their above-average volume of violations incurred and/or injuries suffered, which included the Tiller No. 1, Ruby Energy and UBB mines.

For those who don’t know … Pavlovich & Associates is my old buddy Joe Pavlovich, a longtime and fairly well respected former MSHA official who also served on the McAteer teams that investigated the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Alma No.1 Mine fire.

When he examined the Upper Big Branch Mine (prior to the disaster), Joe P. found, according to Massey’s own legal brief:

… A need for improved rock dust application at certain mines, including in certain areas of UBB.

UPDATED: According to this new court filing in the Delaware case, the Pavlovich reports were provided to the board during a meeting on Feb. 10, 2010.

Now, the Massey brief explains that the board of directors was informed that “remedial action” had been taken including the deployment of “additional pod and sling dusters and re-emphasis of existing rock dusting policies and regulatory requirements.”

The McAteer team’s report on UBB (which Pavlovich was not involved in) tells quite a different story about whether the mine had taken steps to improve its rock-dusting. As we explained in this story on Sunday:

Two years before the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up, miner Nathaniel Jeter complained to Performance Coal Co. President Chris Blanchard about the condition of the mine’s track-mounted rock-dusting machine.

“I said to him, ‘Well, when are they going to get that track duster fixed?'” Jeter told investigators. “He said, ‘Track duster? I didn’t know we had a track duster.’

“I said, ‘Well, yeah. We need to get that fixed.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll look into it.'” Jeter said. “So they had a write-up for it, all the parts and everything, but it never left the mines.”

Rock-dusting is the industry term for spreading large amounts of crushed limestone on mine floors, walls and other surfaces. For more than a century, it’s been understood that proper rock dusting in underground mines can prevent coal-dust explosions.

McAteer’s report explains, “Mines the size of Upper Big Branch typically use track-mounted tank or pod dusters — like the one Jeter operated — to rock dust the track haulage, belt lines, airways, working sections and construction sites.

“Efficient use of a track duster in a mine the size of Upper Big Branch would have required drilling a borehole midway in the mine and not far from the working sections,” the report said. “This would have allowed a speedy delivery of bulk rock dust to refill the tank dusters.”

Upper Big Branch had no such borehole. The mine had just one crew assigned to rock-dusting duties. And the equipment they had never seemed to work properly.

“Sometimes it would clog up, so we would have to spend 30 minutes trying to unclog the hoses to get dusted,” Jeter said, describing the orange rock-dusting machine. “Then it would clog up again.”

Records uncovered by investigators indicated the orange duster was at least 25 years old, and had not been reconditioned for at lest seven years.

After the explosion, when Massey employees tried to start up the duster for MSHA-required tests, the motor burned up.

Investigators found another duster parked in the mine shop. It was tagged “out of service,” and had been stripped down to its frame for parts.

5 Responses to “Documents: Massey board was warned about rock-dusting problems at Upper Big Branch Mine”

  1. jf rote says:

    Ken…Great reporting! Keep digging.

  2. Nelson says:

    MSHA is worthless, our state inspectors are perfectly capable. We do not need a federal regulatory agency in our industry. It is common knowledge that mines tend to blow up, and sometimes cave in. It is an occupational hazard. People go into mining knowing it is dangerous. UBB was a freak accident. MSHA specifically “picks” on Massey, and harasses its employees daily. To the stock holders… let it go, the merger is a great thing.

  3. Tim Higgins says:

    Ken, Your post is a sad comentary on the safety issues of the coal industry.
    But what is really sad is the condition ( pictures) of the equipment that a small crew had to use to protect their fellow workers in that mine.

  4. tf1 says:

    I don’t share the assessment that MSHA is “worthless.” If the state inspectors are so capable, why did they not address some of these problems in Ken Ward’s reporting? And obviously mines DO need some type of regulatory agency. I mead don’t you want the FDA inspecting meat your family eats? Regulation should be effective and accountable; they owe it to the miners. All the miners I know and work with and for would not want to see the end of MSHA or any mine safety agency. Great reporting; All this series has gone straight to the point. I hope that miners continue to post. Thanks.

  5. Ellen says:

    It was Joe Pavlovich and Earnie Teaster who wrote about MSHA’s poor performance regarding the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster where the the mine was so poorly engineered that it was primed for a collapse. While the operator must design the plan (like all plans) Pavlovich and Teaster said that MSHA failed to see the problems (due to inaccurate computer modeling, and a supervisor over-riding concerns of a subordinate) and approved a plan that was “destined to fail.” Maybe EVERYONE should start listening to Mr. Pavlovich and actually implement his recommendations since it only takes one mistake to make a disaster.

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