Coal Tattoo

UMWA wins organizing drive in Illinois

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This just in:

Workers at the Willow Lake mine in Equality, Ill., voted to be represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) as their collective bargaining agent.

“We are very pleased to welcome these miners into the UMWA family,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said today. “These courageous miners sought us out in their struggle to gain a strong voice at work. We look forward to sitting down with the company to negotiate a fair and equitable collective bargaining agreement as soon as possible.”

The southern Illinois site where the bargaining unit of 444 workers mine is operated by Peabody Energy, and has more than 20 million tons of recoverable coal reserves.

The UMWA represents 105,000 active and retired coal miners, manufacturing workers, public service employees, health care workers and professional employees in Canada and the United States. Headquartered in Triangle, Va., the UMWA represents more coal miners than any other union in the world.

A sign along the road to the Upper Big Branch Mine. Photo by Jim Beck, courtesy of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel.

The editorial in today’s New York Times concludes:

Massey has denied culpability and attributed the explosion to an unpreventable surge of underground methane gas. Investigators rejected that claim and the state report convincingly traces the disaster through a chain of neglect, while accusing the company of building “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable.”

A federal investigation has already led to the criminal indictment of the mine’s security chief, who was charged with lying to federal investigators and attempting to dispose of evidence. The Obama administration has toughened regulatory oversight, demanding rigorous inspections and heavy penalties for offending mining companies. But the state report underlines the urgent need for far stronger safety laws. House Republicans and coal-state Democrats dedicated to Big Coal have refused to move on any sensible legislation.

Miners need whistle-blower protection to raise the alarm about dangerous conditions without fear of losing their livelihoods. Congress should make it a felony to alert managers that mine inspectors are on the way. Serial violators like Massey must face the strongest penalties, and the cynical gaming of safety violations with endless appeals must finally end. Hesitant lawmakers claim they need a fuller sense of what happened in the tragedy. They should face up to the 126-page report’s finding that the Upper Big Branch tragedy is a “tale of hubris.”

A couple points worth mentioning, though.

First, I’m not sure which coal-state Democrats the Times is talking about.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., represents our state’s 3rd congressional district, where the disaster occurred. Rep. Rahall is a co-sponsor of Rep. George Miller’s Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2011. In a statement yesterday, Rep. Rahall said:

I am cosponsoring legislation to help close loopholes that the report notes were exploited by Massey, and I will be getting more details on the document’s 52 recommendations to see what further can and should be done through Congressional action.

Continue reading…

The report from Davitt McAteer’s independent investigation team contained some surprise findings that got only brief mentions in some of the media reports, but are worth much more attention than that.

It turns out that most of the miners killed in that terrible explosion on April 5, 2010, had black lung disease, or Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). As the report explains:

At our request a recognized expert in occupational diseases and with experience in lung examinations of this sort reviewed the autopsy reports and determined the presence or absence of CWP.

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. is 3.2 percent, and the rate in West Virginia is 7.6 percent. The ages of the UBB victims with CWP ranged from 25 to 61 years.

The report concluded:

The victims at UBB constitute a random sample of miners. The fact that 71 percent of them show evidence of CWP is an alarming finding given the ages and work history of these men.

Continue reading…

In conclusion: Will we do something after UBB?

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The McAteer team presented policy makers, the public and the mining industry with a long list of recommendations for avoiding future mine disasters … the question now is, will anybody listen?

Here’s a chapter from their report that focuses on that topic:

“Some pretty hard questions have got to be asked. The families need answers, and we, as a country, need answers. Something has gone drastically wrong – and we need to find out what it is, what happened, and we need to do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Kate Wilkinson, New Zealand Minister of Conservation, on the loss of 29 miners at the Pike River coal mine in November 2010.

“MSHA is launching a full investigation to determine the cause of this tragedy and will take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, on the loss of 12 miners in the Sago mine, in Buckhannon, West Virginia, January 4, 2006.

“We just have got to find the answers to what caused this and to make sure whatever it takes that this never happens again,” West Virginia Governor (now U.S. Senator) Joe Manchin III, said on April 11, 2010.

Following all man-made disasters, such as coal mine explosions, government officials stand in front of the public and grieving family members and promise to take steps to ensure that such tragedies don’t happen again. For a while people pay attention. Investigative bodies like this one are formed and spend months sifting through evidence to attempt to pinpoint the causes of the disaster and offer recommendations aimed at preventing another one.

We have done so in this report, again with the genuine hope that reforms can be instituted and that the Upper Big Branch disaster is the last coal mining disaster ever in this country. However, we offer these recommendations with reservation. We have seen similar reports, written with the same good intent, gathering dust on the bookshelves of the national Mine Health and Safety Academy.

We also have witnessed times when this country rolled up its sleeves and went to work with a steely determination to improve workplace conditions. Some of the most dramatic improvements for miners’ health and safety in the United States came after some of the worst human tragedies – the disaster at Monongah in 1907 and the explosion at Farmington in 1968 – when big, bold reforms were put in place by courageous lawmakers at both the state and federal level.

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Independent investigator Davitt McAteer and his team pointed out in their new report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster that there are questions about whether the buyout of Massey Energy by Alpha Natural Resources will improve Massey’s safety practices.

As the report explains:

Alpha’s chief executive, Kevin S. Crutchfield, said that he would “draw on his company’s cleaner safety and environmental record to help resolve Massey’s legal issues,” but that it would take time. “I think we’ve established a pretty credible track record with regards to safety and environmental stewardship,” he said. “The goal is to run the combined company in the same manner.”

But, citing reports by my buddy Howard Berkes over at NPR, the McAteer team said:

That credibility may have taken a hit when Crutchfield announced on April 16, 2011, that he has named Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins [pictured above] to help spearhead the implementation of Alpha’s main safety program, “Running Right,” in partnership with a current Alpha executive.

Continue reading…

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Last night, on the eve of Davitt McAteer releasing his teams’ report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, I was surprised to see a reporter from the Beckley paper tweet this:

Tomorrow, the public will know more about UBB explosion. What does it mean if we find out it was purely an accident? What if theres fault?

It’s clear that Massey Energy’s public relations campaign (which died down quite a bit after Don Blankenship retired and the buyout by Alpha Natural Resources was announced) had some traction. People must not have paid attention when, just the day after the explosion, longtime MSHA official Kevin Stricklin tried to explain that all coal-mine explosions can be prevented.

Massey’s strategy re-emerged earlier today, when the company put out its statement responding to the McAteer team’s report, saying:

We disagree with Mr. McAteer’s conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust. Again, we believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas. Our experts feel confident that coal dust did not play an important role. Our experts continue to study the UBB explosion and our goal is to find answers and technologies that ultimately make mining safer.

Not for nothing, but as Howard Berkes at NPR pointed out this morning, we have yet to see the sort of detailed explanation of this theory that Massey has promised:

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship promised to release the company’s own report on the disaster during a meeting with reporters in November. Blankenship suddenly retired in December, and the company has yet to issue a report.

Still, the Massey theory threatened to dominate McAteer’s press conference, when as the first question  a Bloomberg News local stringer asked to read aloud Massey’s entire press release and ask McAteer to respond.

So, it’s worth everyone taking a closer look at McAteer’s report, specifically Chapter 6: Footprint of a Disaster.   It explains:

Every mine explosion leaves behind a footprint that offers clues to investigators as to where the blast originated and how the force traveled from the ignition point. Conflicting theories have been put forth as to whether the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine was triggered by methane or natural gas; whether it was solely the result of an immense methane inundation; or whether coal dust aided in propagating the blast.

Continue reading…

Family members of Upper Big Branch miner Rex Mullins, who died in the disaster, leave this morning’s briefing on the McAteer report. Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce.

We’ve published more than a dozen posts with various reactions to the McAteer team’s report, but here’s one that matters more than the others … my buddy Gary Harki talked to family members after their briefing. He reports:

Shirley Whitt, the sister of UBB victim Boone Payne, said she was trying to keep an open mind at the start of the meeting and had not already decided who was at fault.

“But based on the information we received today, in my mind, this was definitely something that Massey could have controlled, and I don’t think the boardroom of Massey shouldn’t be making decisions that affect the safety of the miners…

“I think this is a crime.”

Jason Mullins’ uncle, Yancy Mullins, who also attended today’s meeting, said there can be no closure until “somebody is held accountable… I mean, every day I think about my brother, not a day’s went by yet.”

He turned to Jason and said: “It was all about production.”

Jason responded: “Push coal or go home.”

Here’s a video Kathryn Gregory put together of some of the families.

Here’s a statement from the office of Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor:

“I want to thank Davitt McAteer and his team for their hard work and dedication in presenting the Report to the Governor on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster (“Report”). With the information presented in the Report, we are steps closer to identifying the cause of this horrific incident and also to identifying potential reforms to improve mine safety.

My staff, along with the experts at the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety & Training (“OMHS&T”), has already begun our review of the Report and will continue that review in the coming days. The Report, along with the reports that will be issued by the OMHS&T and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”) in the coming months, will provide my administration the information necessary to develop regulatory and statutory changes necessary to improve mine safety in West Virginia. The Report, along with the final conclusions by our OMHS&T and MSHA, should also provide significant insight as to the cause of this disaster and help us prevent future mine disasters. Just as was the case with the Sago and Aracoma disasters, I remain strongly committed to improving mine safety in our State. My office will continue to work closely with all involved to make West Virginia’s mines the safest in the nation.

I do want to note that the State has already taken several steps to address recommendations that are contained in the Report for the OMHS&T. Specifically, the State has begun to address inspector staffing issues. During this past Legislative Session, we added $750,000 to the budget of OMHS&T for a $5,004 pay raise for all mine inspectors. This will aid in recruitment and retention of qualified inspectors.

We have recently hired new inspectors to focus on making sure that mines are properly rock dusted. Those inspectors are currently in training. The OMHS&T’s lab for rock dust analysis is in place and is expected to begin operating around July 1 of this year, once training has been completed. For the first time in the history of our State, the OMHS&T will undertake a scientific analysis of the rock dust present in mines. It is my hope this action will further improve mining safety.

Furthermore, the OMHS&T has already shifted resources to provide additional inspector time for larger mines, like the one at UBB. Our inspectors are now working more frequently on the weekends, allowing for inspections, as the Report suggests, at any hour and on any day.

Finally, the Report also suggests several improvements relating to communications and technological advancements. I am certainly interested in using proven, reliable, and available technology to improve mine safety and communications. That is why I was so proud of the State’s acquisition of the Command Unit Rapid Response Task Force 1 and Mine Rescue Truck. The first of its kind, this truck significantly improves our ability to communicate and analyze conditions at a mine site. I believe we can and will do more for the safety of our miners.

Today is no doubt another difficult day for the family and friends of the brave men we lost on the afternoon of April 5, 2010. I hope that the Report will bring some closure to their families. They and all West Virginians have my commitment that we will do all we can to make sure that a disaster like this never happens again. In honor of those we lost, I ask that all West Virginians take a moment of silent reflection in their honor.”

Here’s a statement from House Education and the Workforce Chairman Jon Kline, R-Minn.:

Federal officials, state leaders, and mine operators each play a critical role in ensuring the safety of our mines. The strongest laws cannot protect miners if the federal enforcement agency fails to do its job and mine operators ignore safety standards. Today’s report indicates the tragedy at Upper Big Branch resulted from a systemic failure of leadership. This is deeply disturbing. The committee will take a close look at the report’s findings and recommendations as we continue our efforts to guarantee all stakeholders are doing their part to protect the nation’s miners.


Here’s a statement from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who as governor appointed McAteer to investigate the Upper Big Branch disaster:

My thoughts and prayers today are with the families of the 29 miners who died at Upper Big Branch. As the independent investigation reports, this tragedy could have been prevented and these types of mistakes should never be repeated. The recommendations of the report will provide a blueprint going forward so that no other miners will be put in jeopardy and no other families will have to endure a preventable tragedy. I hope all West Virginians will be united with me in a commitment to work together to enact the right reforms to prioritize worker safety and make sure that no company can put profits ahead of lives. I am also anxiously awaiting the findings and recommendations from the other two investigations that are still underway.

Here’s a statement from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.:

This report tragically reinforces that the disaster that took the lives of 29 men at Upper Big Branch last year was absolutely preventable. That will always be one of the most painful facts about this explosion.

Today’s report, taken together with the other ongoing state and federal investigations, will allow us to better understand what happened and take actions for greater safety at every level. The report also lays bare the full extent to which Massey managed this mine without the culture of safety and compliance that miners deserve and the law demands. My hope today is for this report to serve as a fresh wakeup call to Congress – unless we act now to give federal mine safety inspectors the additional tools they need and are asking for, a few bad operators will continue to make this industry more dangerous than it has to be.

Here’s a statement from Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce:

“The events leading up to the Upper Big Branch tragedy, described by the West Virginia independent investigation panel, are chilling. The conditions could have easily come from a different era where fear and intimidation were used to produce coal at any cost. Unfortunately, 29 miners and their families paid the highest price for a company that chose to operate outside the margins of safety.

“The need for Congress to act has been clear for some time. We already knew about widespread failures by Massey management and their disregard for safety. This committee explored the industry-wide practice of gaming the system to escape tougher scrutiny. And, despite laws to protect them, we heard directly from miners and their families about the fear and intimidation they faced when they spoke up about safety problems.

“It’s time to close these loopholes and hold mine owners accountable who operate in a reckless disregard of human life. While Congress continues to be gridlocked by a pay-to-play political system, miners are put in grave danger by allowing the next Upper Big Branch to happen. Voluntary safety programs and self-policing, as the industry is advocating, is not the solution and will only put our nation’s mines back to the dark ages. There is no reason why we cannot act with a sense of urgency on these reasonable and responsible recommendations.”


Here’s a statement from UMWA President Cecil Roberts:

“While we are still reviewing the full report on the Upper Big Branch disaster issued by the West Virginia Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, headed by J. Davitt McAteer, I could not help but be struck by several conclusions reached by the panel.

“First, mine management failed to carry out even the most basic functions required of it to keep the mine safe. Proper ventilation was nonexistent, fireboss runs were not made, essential gas detection equipment was not turned on, water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained, coal dust was allowed to accumulate on the floor and the ribs of the mine and required rock dusting to hold down potential explosions was not done.

“These are all things any company that cared about its workers’ safety would not allow to happen. But because of the safety-last culture that has developed at Massey, there was no emphasis on maintaining the mine within even the most basic of safety parameters.

“Secondly, the report details how the culture of intimidation and repression of workers and their voices at work, always so prevalent in a nonunion workplace, was taken to an even greater level at Massey. In the wake of this report, I don’t know how anyone can argue against not just protecting basic rights at work for coal miners but expanding them.

“We in the UMWA hear about these types of conditions all the time from former and current Massey miners. Indeed, one of them testified about the repressive Massey culture before a Senate committee last year. It is somewhat surprising, though heartening, to see a discussion of it in this report. Listening to workers’ voices on the job is always important to safety. Punishing workers for speaking up about safety at Upper Big Branch proved deadly.

“Finally, the report includes troubling findings regarding oversight activities, or lack thereof, by individuals working for the federal and state agencies charged with performing those duties. We will be looking more closely at those issues, as well as all the other issues we have uncovered, as part of our own investigation into this tragedy in our role as miners’ representatives.”

W.Va. Governor Joe Manchin listens as Rep. Nick Rahall, left, briefs the press on a mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, in Naoma, W.Va., on April 6, 2010. Rahall informed the press that a congressional investigation will be conducted alongside the MSHA investigation. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

Here’s a statement from Rep. Nick J. Rahall, whose district includes the Upper Big Branch Mine:

“The Independent Investigative Report on the Upper Big Branch Disaster is enlightening as well painful to read. It is stiff and cutting in its across-board-criticism of the regulatory agencies, and deservedly so. But at its heart is a scathing critique of Massey Energy – its culture of profit before the well-being of its people and its fabrication of a mine safety system that the report calls merely ‘window dressing.’ In that regard, I look positively upon the buyout of Massey by Alpha Natural Resources – a company with a well-regarded safety program. It is my fervent hope that Alpha will move swiftly to institute the necessary safety changes once it takes control in the coming weeks.

“In culmination, the report finds that there is much, much work to do to ensure that our nation possesses a mine safety system that truly honors the 29 miners who perished at UBB.

“I have already talked with Secretary of Labor Solis and been assured that MSHA has been, and will continue to be, aggressively improving its oversight to bring into line such rogue bad actors as Massey. I will continue to do all that I can to ensure that the agency makes good on that promise and that it has the resources it needs to do so.

“I am cosponsoring legislation to help close loopholes that the report notes were exploited by Massey, and I will be getting more details on the document’s 52 recommendations to see what further can and should be done through Congressional action. I will continue to push for sufficient federal resources for MSHA and the Department of Labor, continuing appropriations secured last year to aggressively pursue pattern violators. As well, I will look forward to the completion of other, ongoing investigative work.

“Finally, my heart goes out to the families of those miners who must be having yet another emotional day. No doubt, this report leaves them with further questions. To them, I extend reassurance that I will keep the pressure on to help them get the answers they seek and to help secure accountability. Their loved ones will not be forgotten.”


Here’s a statement from the National Mining Association:

The McAteer report retells for all of us the tragic events at the Upper Big Branch Mine, which was of unthinkable dimensions for the entire mining community.

We are still reviewing the findings and recommendations made by Mr. McAteer and more will be learned from future reports.  Nonetheless, his observation that, “This was a failure to connect the dots,”  is key to further improvements in mine safety.  The leadership of the National Mining Association embraces a systems approach to mine safety –assessing and addressing risk, instilling a culture of safety that involves everyone and beginning and continuing with strong leadership from the top.  This involves a different approach to mine safety than has traditionally been the case in the U.S.

Mine safety is mining’s responsibility, and we continue to look for better ways to meet that responsibility.

Here’s a statement issued by MSHA chief Joe Main:

“Maintaining a safe mine is the responsibility of the mine operator. The tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine was entirely preventable, and basic safety practices were not followed by Massey Energy. Those were the major findings in the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel’s report on Upper Big Branch, released today.

“GIIP agrees with much of the evidence analyzed by MSHA to date. It reveals that methane was ignited at the tail of the longwall as the longwall shearer – which had faulty water sprays – cut into sandstone in the mine roof, the likely source of the ignition. The ignition then transitioned into a major coal dust explosion.

“The GIIP report found that ‘Massey failed to properly examine the mine to find and fix hazards and violations; control the accumulation of coal dust in the mine by adequately rock dusting; maintain water spray systems on the longwall cutting shearer; submit an effective mine ventilation plan; and comply with approved plans.’

“Massey knew it was having serious compliance problems and failed to effectively fix them. However, as the GIIP report points out, Massey did more than fail to act. Massey promoted a culture that ‘prized production over safety’ and where ‘wrongdoing became acceptable.’ As such, it violated the law and disregarded basic safety practices.

“As part of this culture, the GIIP report found that Massey employed tactics to intimidate miners from speaking out about unsafe conditions. As we heard from congressional testimony of miners last spring, Massey also hid violations from government enforcement agencies, such as through advance notice of inspections, which is prohibited under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

“We are playing a significant role in making mines safer. Yet, there are mine operators that don’t get it. They operate differently when MSHA is not there, and they know MSHA cannot be there all the time. That’s why we have called on Congress to provide us with more tools to protect miners. We need to make sure that recalcitrant operators do get it.

“While our own investigation is ongoing, it is fair to say that MSHA is in agreement with many of the GIIP findings. The panel’s report echoes many of the findings that MSHA has been sharing with victims’ families and the public.”

A protester holds a sign behind Massey Energy Company Vice President and General Council Shane Harvey, left, and Massey Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship, as they wait to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Here’s Massey Energy’s response to the McAteer report, in the form of a comment from Shane Harvey, Massey’s general counsel:

“We have just received Davitt McAteer’s report and are carefully reviewing it. We do have some initial observations.

“We agree with Davitt that the industry needs to examine whether it can achieve better methane monitoring technology. At UBB, all methane monitors were functional and yet the mine experienced a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas that was not detected in time to prevent the explosion. We have been examining where improvements in methane monitoring can be made and we hope to develop some better technologies as a result of our investigation.

“We disagree with Davitt’s conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust. Again, we believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas. Our experts feel confident that coal dust did not play an important role. Our experts continue to study the UBB explosion and our goal is to find answers and technologies that ultimately make mining safer.”


The McAteer team’s new report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster describes in some detail the alleged actions of a Massey Energy foreman, Jeremy Burghduff, who it appears didn’t always perform the important mine safety checks required of him.

Burghduff was responsible for “firebossing” the important mine tunnels near the longwall section, the area leading back to the mine’s main ventilation fan at Bandytown. According to the McAteer report:

Investigators downloaded data from the methane detectors used by Burghduff for the period of September 2009 through April 23, 2010. In the seek weeks preceding the disaster, when he was supposed to be checking for hazardous conditions in the area leading back to the Bandytown fan, the “Burghdog” device was not turned on during at least 25 of his work shifts.

The report continues:

The foreman’s anemometer readings taken in the Bandytown fan area were also questionable. Investigators questioned the lack of fluctuation in readings taken from February 16 through March 10. The velocity generated by the fan was approximately 400,000 cubic feet per minute. Yet Burghduff’s reading indicated less than one-tenth of one percent variation.

The McAteer team commented:

This data raises doubt about the daily and weekly air readings and other data recorded by the crew foreman in the weeks leading up to the disaster. Accurate air readings and water levels in those key ventilation entries would provide a valuable history of conditions in a critical part of the mine in the days and weeks just prior to the explosion.

Incredibly, the McAteer report also tells us:

Data downloaded from methane detectors indicated that devices used by other foremen also had not been turned on at times when the foremen were underground and responsible for identifying hazardous conditions.

And in an issue that NPR’s Howard Berkes has done much reporting about, the McAteer team says:

Testimony suggested that methane detectors on equipment had been ‘bridged out’ or disabled, so that production could continue without taking time to make repairs. Although equipment disabling has not been directly tied to the explosion itself, this practice is a present and constant danger to workers and a violation of state and federal law.

Davitt McAteer just told the Upper Big Branch families:

This company ran this mine in a profoundly reckless manner.


Mine helmets and painted crosses sit at the entrance to Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine Tuesday, April 5, 2011 in Montcoal, W.Va. The memorial represents the 29 coal miners who were killed in an explosion at the mine one year ago today. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Along with our new reports on the Gazette’s website and here on Coal Tattoo, there’s a flurry of other stories coming out right now that detail the findings of independent investigator Davitt McAteer’s report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Here’s a sampling with links:

— Our buddy Howard Berkes over at NPR reports:

The first investigative report about last year’s coal mine disaster in West Virginia blames a corporate “culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm” for the deaths of 29 Massey Energy mine workers.

— Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal:

A 13-month independent investigation into the coal-mine explosion that killed 29 Massey Energy Co. workers last year concluded that the accident could have been prevented and was primarily the result of the company’s failed safety systems, which federal and state regulators failed to correct.

The Washington Post:

An investigative report that details the findings of a year-long probe into the Upper Big Branch mine explosion paints a picture of a rogue coal operation where basic safety measures were routinely flouted and federal regulators did little more than issue citations and walk away.

USA Today:

An independent study concludes that the West Virginia coal mine explosion that killed 29 men last year was the result of safety failings by owner Massey Energy Co.

The New York Times:

In the first comprehensive state report on the 2010 coal mine disaster in West Virginia, an independent team of investigators put the blame squarely on the owner of the mine, Massey Energy, concluding that it had “made life difficult” for miners who tried to address safety and built “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable.”

The Associated Press:

An independent investigation concludes the West Virginia coal mine explosion that killed 29 men last year was the result of safety failings by owner Massey Energy Co and rejects the company’s argument that a sudden gas buildup caused the deadliest U.S. coalfield disaster since 1970.

Mine Safety and Health News:

Illegal and unsafe mining practices, combined with intimidating mine managers who threatened miners and supervisors, created an atmosphere at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine of “normalized deviance,” according to a report released today by an independent investigative review panel.

Family members of Upper Big Branch miners enter for Beckley Convention Center for a briefing on Davitt McAteer’s report. Gazette photo by Gary Harki.

Right now down in Beckley, special investigator Davitt McAteer and his team are briefing the families of the 29 men who died at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine on the findings of their year-long investigation of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

The bottom line in McAteer’s report:

The explosion was the result of failures of basic safety systems identified and codified to protect the lives of miners.

The disaster at Upper Big Branch was man-made and could have been prevented.

We’ve got a news story online here that summarizes the 122-page report, and the report itself is posted here.

A news conference is scheduled for about 12:30 p.m., and we expect reactions to begin flowing in from Massey, federal and state agencies, and political leaders as soon as those folks have time to digest some of the McAteer team’s findings. The Gazette’s Gary Harki, Kathryn Gregory and Larry Pierce will be bringing readers reactions from some of the families.

The report confirms some previous evidence and theories about how the explosion occurred (see here, here and here), describing its conclusion about the actual blast this way:

… The ignition point for the blast was the tail of the longwall. As the shearer cut into the sandstone mine roof, the resulting sparks ignited a pocket of methane, creating a fireball. The fireball in turn ignited the methane that had accumulated in the gob during the Easter weekend and leaked onto the longwall face. The fireball traveled into the tailgate area, where accumulations of coal dust provided fuel for a second, more deadly, force. This dust-fueled blast ricocheted in multiple directions, traveling across the longwall face, into the tailgate entry, and through more than two miles of the mine.

McAteer’s team also offers some key new information, though:  Key pumps meant to keep water from collecting in mine tunnels near the longwall section had broke over the weekend. This, they say, allowed water to build up and at least partially block the flow of fresh air pulled through those tunnels by the mine’s main ventilation fan at Bandytown. And, miners working the morning and early afternoon prior to the disaster reported in sworn testimony that the flow of fresh air through the mine was reversed that day. Air headed in the wrong direction would have greatly diminished the ability to sweep explosive methane and coal dust out of the working sections.

As MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said in a media briefing the day after the explosion, this sort of thing can only happen if a series of well-understood and longstanding safety precautions are ignored. McAteer’s team reported:

The company’s ventilation plan did not adequately ventilate the mine. As a result, explosive gases were allowed to build up. The company failed to meet federal and state safe principle standards for the application of rock dust. Therefore, coal dust provided the fuel that allowed the explosion to propagate through the mine. Third, water sprays on equipment were not properly maintained and failed to function as they should have. As as a result, a small ignition could not be quickly extinguished.

McAteer’s team, calling themselves the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, emphasized the point again, in a chapter called, “The Normalization of Deviance””

Many safety systems created to safeguard miners had to break down in order for an explosion of this magnitude to occur. The ventilation system had to be inadequate; there had to be a huge buildup of coal dust to carry the explosion; there had to be inadequate rock dusting so that the explosiveness of the coal dust would not be diluted; there had to be a breakdown in the fireboss system through which unsafe conditions are identified and corrected. Any of these failures would have been problematic. Together, they created a perfect storm within the Upper Big Branch Mine, an accident waiting to happen.

And:

Such total and catastrophic systemic failures can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm. In such a culture it was acceptable to mine coal with insufficient air; with buildups of coal dust; with inadequate rock dust. The same culture allowed Massey Energy to use its resources to create a false public image to mislead the public, community leaders and investors — the perception that the company exceeded industry safety standards. And it became acceptable to cast agencies designed to protect miners as enemies and to make life difficult for miners who tried to address safety. It is only in the context of a culture bent on production at the expense of safety that these obvious deviations from decades of known safety practices makes sense.

McAteer’s panel is the first investigative team to complete its probe at Upper Big Branch. MSHA has what it says will be a major public briefing scheduled for June 29, but its complete report is not expected for months after that. No firm timeline has been provided for the release of an MSHA internal review. The state mine safety office likewise isn’t scheduled to issue a report until perhaps very late this year. Two criminal cases have been brought as a result of the disaster — both of low-level Massey employees (see here and here) — and it’s anyone’s guess when or even if more such cases will be filed.

But the McAteer report makes clear that his team of mining experts, lawyers and public health experts believes serious reforms are needed within industry, regulatory agencies and our region’s political structure if more disasters like Upper Big Branch are to be prevented:

Following all man-made disasters, such as coal mine explosions, government officials stand in front of the public and grieving family members and promise to take steps to ensure that such tragedies don’t happen again. For a while, people pay attention. Investigative bodies like this one are formed and spend months sifting through evidence to attempt to pinpoint the causes of the disaster and offer recommendations aimed at preventing another one.

We have done so in this report, again with the genuine hope that reforms can be instituted and that the Upper Big Branch disaster is the last coal mining disaster ever in this country. However, we offer these recommendations with reservation. We have seen similar reports, written with the same good intent, gathering dust on the bookshelves of the national Mine Health and Safety Academy.

We also have witnessed times when this country rolled up its sleeves and went to work with a steely determination to improve workplace conditions. Some of the most dramatic improvements for miners’ health and safety in the United States came after some of the worst human tragedies — the disaster at Monongah in 1907, and the explosion at Farmington in 1968 — when big, bold reforms were put in place by courageous lawmakers at both the state and federal level.

… This tells us we can mine coal safely in this country. Disasters are not and inevitable part of the mining cycle. There are not preordained numbers of miners who have to perish to produce the nation’s energy. While we are all in God’s hands, the safety and health of our miners is also in the hands of the mining community.