Report: Alpha tops coal industry in MSHA fines

March 21, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

This just in from SNL Financial’s website:

Coal mines operated by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. were assessed more proposed fines for federal safety and health violations in 2011 than all major public coal companies combined, evidence that the company continues to struggle to bring former Massey Energy Co. operations into compliance.

An SNL Energy analysis of annual safety and health data included in companies’ Form 10-K SEC filings shows Alpha received nearly $33 million in proposed fines from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, more than any other coal producer by a wide margin. In fairness, Alpha now operates the most coal mines of any U.S. public coal producer, and many of those operations are underground mines in Central Appalachia, where more complex mining, with larger workforces, tends to occur and often results in more safety violations than at large-scale surface mines in the western United States.

Alpha states in its Form 10-K that it has 145 mines and 35 coal preparation facilities, and added that “citations and compliance metrics … vary, due to the size and type of the operation.” The company also said in the filing, “We endeavor to conduct our mining and other operations in compliance with all applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations. However, violations occur from time to time”

SNL posted this chart:

The story continued:

Alpha spokesman Ted Pile emphasized that “by sheer numbers, more underground mines in particular mean more inspections and more paper in aggregate.” He also noted that Alpha’s assessment figures for 2011 are “inflated” by the circumstances at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Approximately $12.4 million of the fines assessed to Alpha in 2011 were at Upper Big Branch, where a deadly explosion in 2010 killed 29 miners and was subject of several investigations that blamed Massey for poor safety practices.


Pile said that accident rates at Massey operations have improved considerably since the acquisition and the fourth quarter showed marked improvement in the issuance of elevated enforcement actions. “We track our violations per inspector shift as do many companies, and we believe our performance is comparable to our competitors,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t striving to lower the rate, and in the months after we completed the acquisition we saw meaningful progress in many of the safety indices we track.”

However, even excluding the Upper Big Branch assessments, Alpha racked up nearly as many proposed fines in 2011 as Alpha and Massey did combined in 2010. Excluding Upper Big Branch, Alpha was assessed $20.3 million in fines in 2011, compared to $20.7 million for Alpha and Massey combined in 2010.

12 Responses to “Report: Alpha tops coal industry in MSHA fines”

  1. New Age Miner says:

    Just saying…..the only thing they’ve probably “improved” on is training management on how to NOT report accidents. This would keep down their NFDL rates and give the persona that they are “Running the Right Way” in the publics eyes. MSHA seldom checks to see if they are reporting injuries/illnesses the way their supposed to.

    Same thing Massey did. Just saying………..

  2. coalfire says:

    Do you work for Alpha? They are doing a pretty good job of straighting things up. Culture is hard to change. I do not work for Alpha, but they have some really good programs.

  3. JP says:

    “MSHA seldom checks to see if they are reporting injuries/illnesses the way their supposed to.”

    I would beg to differ. Training plans, procedures, records and compliance reporting are scrutinized quite often and are particularly audited after any reportable incident.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I’d like to see some evidence to support your statements.

    There’s plenty of evidence in the Upper Big Branch internal review that suggests exactly the contrary: MSHA didn’t do those things at this mine and, partly as a result, 29 men got blown up.

    Just to mention one example, regarding reporting of injuries and illnesses. MSHA performed an audit of this at UBB in 2003, following a fatality, as is standard agency practice. Three minor violations were cited. But after the disaster, MSHA comes in and says there were wholesale problems with this at the mine — if MSHA was doing its job in this regard, they would have caught this BEFORE a disaster.


  5. MGP says:

    Nothing that D-4 did or did not do caused the explosion at UBB, and the UBB Internal Review does not say or suggest otherwise.

    As far as “evidence” in support of JP’s comment are concerned, such evidence is readily available:

    There’s a wealth of data. You can get information, for instance, on every MSHA inspection since January 1, 2000 and see for yourself which mines have been inspected.

    MSHA can’t be everywhere. They can’t catch people who game the system, all the time. And like most law enforcement agencies, they have a hard time catching folk BEFORE they break the law.

  6. New Age Miner says:

    I agree with JP Ken when he says,
    “Training plans, procedures, records and compliance reporting are scrutinized quite often and are particularly audited after any reportable incident.”
    The trick is, getting company’s to REPORT their accidents. MSHA randomly picks mines to perform audits and for the most part, miss/overlook the majority of operations. Audits are also performed, as you said, following every fatality, but unless operators REPORT honestly every “accident”, no one knows for sure if the company’s NFDL rates are correctly reflected. And we all know why they would want to keep their incident rates down………
    Just saying……………………..

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    The MSHA internal review makes it very clear, to borrow a favorite MSHA term, that the agency did not “use of all its tools” to protect the men who died at Upper Big Branch.

    To say otherwise is just false.

    MSHA employees, former MSHA employees and MSHA defenders who comment on this blog should know better than to pretend the agency doesn’t carry part of the blame.

  8. MGP says:

    I am neither a current nor former MSHA employee. I am not pretending that MSHA doesn’t carry part of the blame for the tragedy at UBB.

    I am denying that MSHA is in any way responsible for the tragedy.

    I am not defending MSHA because I have any interest at stake in doing so. I am defending MSHA because the inspectors who inspected UBB did so in good faith and there is ABSOLUTELY no evidence that MSHA D-4 turned a blind eye to conditions at UBB. If D-4 had been able to foresee the tragedy, it never would have happened.

    Of the tools available, and unused, which ones would have prevented the tragedy? POV? Flagrant violations and assessments?

    D-4 had a terrible tragedy happen at UBB. But they are in no way responsible for those miners’ deaths.

    It’s not their fault. They deserve to have their actions defended, if not by you, by people who don’t know any better.

  9. Steve says:

    Does the above chart tell the whole story? How many man hours worked at each mine or prep. plant in 2011? How many inspections did each operation (underground & prep. plant) have during the year? Were there any spot checks at some, and none at others? Were some inspections during the year skipped at any of the mines in 2011? We know that there is a shortage of qualified inspectors. Do you think that just maybe there’s just not enough to cover all the places all the time, and some inspections are neglected? That would certainly skew the results of a chart.

  10. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t think any one chart or any one story tells “the whole story” about what’s happening at any coal mine, do you?

    The SNL story, and my blog post citing it, contained quote from Ted Pile at Alpha explaining the company’s view of how just counting up total fines and violations aren’t the end all-be all of how to measure safety performance.

    But, Alpha has offered itself up as the savior of the coalfields, declaring that its “Running Right” program will fix problems at Massey mines and protect its workforce … the company and its top executives have pretty much asked for this kind of scrutiny. And the Byrd-Rockefeller amendment for SEC filings has done exactly what it was supposed to — make more of this information public and prompt more focus on safety issues.


  11. JP says:

    MSHA does a good enough job defending themselves and deflecting blame, they do not need any help in any blog, certainly not from me.

    I can only relate personal experience, and my experience tells me MSHA does indeed scrutinize training plans, procedures, records and compliance reporting. A citation for an inadvertent blank field on a 7000-1 accident reporting form years after the fact is one example. Another citation for lack of task training of an experienced supervisor responsible for task training on a piece of rental equipment is another. I could go on and on with such evidence.

    Relative to UBB are several citations for training and compliance records beyond those well documented in the investigation of the tragedy. While MSHA may be accused of not having used all the tools at its disposal, it is inaccurate to say they do not check records for compliance reporting.

  12. Steve says:

    I don’t think I’ve read anywhere where Alpha declared or”offered itself up as the savior of the coalfields”. I do recall reading where they were going to improve safety at all ex-Massey operations, and I personally believe any coal company should really wants to be both safe and productive. The complete takeover of Massey hasn’t really been in full effect until about January the first. Let’s give them a little more time, shall we?
    As for the above chart, how many of the listed companies have contract mines that do not list? If I’m not mistaken, Alpha does not contract any outside mines. That would also lessen the number of listed violations.

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