Coal Tattoo

U.S. Attorney  Booth Goodwin  speaks to reporters Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse  (AP Photo/Brad Davis).

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin this morning put out a news release to update the public on the still-secret report that Alpha Natural Resources provided to give his office a six-month update on its progress improving mine safety efforts as part of Goodwin’s agreement not to bring any corporate criminal charges in the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

The second sentence of the release concludes:

The report indicates that Alpha is in compliance with the Agreement and has made substantial progress in improving safety.

And Goodwin says:

The progress Alpha reported is a very positive beginning to our agreement. The company has made great strides in addressing the systemic problems it inherited after the merger.

The health and safety research foundation and the innovations in safety equipment under our agreement have the potential to create major improvements in mine safety, not just at Alpha but across the country. And the financial consequences of Massey’s behavior are a powerful reminder that cutting corners on safety is bad for business.  There is still work to be done, as Alpha has acknowledged, but a lot’s been accomplished over the past six months, and I look forward to another good report in December.

Among other things, Goodwin praises these actions by Alpha since it bought Massey in June 2011 and since the non-prosecution agreement in December 2011:

Alpha has done remedial safety maintenance at all its former Massey mines and has added maintenance and safety personnel at former Massey operations. The company also has purchased state-of-the-art digital explosibility meters to check for dangerous conditions in all its mines, a step recommended after the UBB explosion by an independent investigation panel appointed by West Virginia’s then Governor (now U.S. Senator) Joe Manchin. In addition, Alpha has implemented rock dusting and cleanup plans for all its mines, including former Massey mines, as well as a system to monitor results under those plans and to add or reallocate resources where needed.

This month, Alpha plans to make its first purchase of a cutting-edge cascading oxygen escape system, which helps miners safely get out of a mine in an emergency. Alpha ultimately expects to invest at least $10-$12 million in these systems. The company also has hired a mine technology company to develop wireless sensors that can check for potentially explosive methane gas anywhere in a mine. The sensors, which will be in place in all Alpha’s mines by next year, also will make sure mine air is circulating properly in critical locations.

Alpha has hired a new Director of Regulatory Compliance to focus exclusively on meeting health and safety standards. Under the supervision of the Director of Regulatory Compliance, Alpha has conducted safety compliance visits at all its underground mines. Those visits will be repeated at least every six months. The company also has re-engineered the ventilation systems at former Massey mines where a need for ventilation improvements were identified, and has similarly re-engineered systems for preventing dangerous roof falls.

UPDATED: Vicki Smith over at the AP had the jump on this, with a story that moved early this morning from an interview she did with Booth Goodwin and his top UBB investigator, Steve Ruby. While that story doesn’t make clear that Goodwin’s office hasn’t actually released the Alpha progress report, it certainly included some interesting quotes, like this one from Booth Goodwin:

This is like turning a freight line. This is a company that now has 11,000 coal miners, and they can’t just turn on a dime. But they got pretty close.

Or this one from Steve Ruby:

It’s noteworthy, Ruby added, that after the settlement, “there was a wholesale house cleaning of the executive ranks of Massey.

“That factors into our thinking about the tone at the top,” he said.

Of course, while the Alpha top executive team has changed, some of the mid-level and certainly mine management level has not. Howard Berkes over at NPR has reported about Alpha continuing to employ Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead, two of the folks Massey had running the Upper Big Branch Mine.  We’ve recently noted here on Coal Tattoo the role that Charlie Bearse plays in running Alpha’s Kingston operations, despite the safety problems at the Freedom Energy operation in Kentucky under his leadership. And some state records that were recently released note that Lawrence “Pepe” Lester is one of the mine superintendents at Alpha’s troubled Road Fork No. 51 Mine. Some readers may recognize Mr. Lester as having been a top mine manager at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine when two workers died in a January 2006 fire. State inspectors cited Mr. Lester individually, alleging he waited more than two hours to report the Aracoma fire to regulators.

Regarding this examination of Alpha’s “house cleaning”, Vicki noted in her story:

Ruby declined to detail how deep that process went, saying it’s among the information Alpha considers commercially sensitive.

In its press release, Goodwin’s office touted this:

In Julian, West Virginia, construction has begun on Alpha’s new $18 million training facility, the Running Right Leadership Academy, which is scheduled to open in June 2013. The Academy will comprise approximately 126,000 total square feet of training space, including a 96,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art mine simulation lab that will allow miners to train in realistic mine conditions without training in actual mines. The Academy will provide a comprehensive mine training curriculum and will be available not just to Alpha, but to any mine operator that wants to take advantage of the facility to train its employees. Project plans and a rendering of the new facility are attached to the email version of this release.

And they were kind enough to provide links to where on a government website we can see a location map and artist renderings of the Alpha training facility. Nothing about Alpha’s new and much-promoted mine rescue dog, though …

Goodwin’s office also provided a link to what it indicated is a “public” version of Alpha’s six-month progress report.  But be sure to look closely at what that document is. It’s a cover letter to which Alpha attached  “a summary report of Alpha’s compliance with the Agreement which contains Alpha and its affiliates’ confidential and proprietary commercial and financial information.

As we’ve mentioned here before, Alpha has claimed that the progress report itself is a confidential document covered by Exemption 4 of the federal Freedom of Information Act, which is meant to protect “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.” We’ve filed a formal FOIA request for the entire document, but the Justice Department has yet to respond.

Goodwin told the AP:

We don’t mean to paint that everything’s coming up roses. They still have room to improve.

In his press release, Goodwin touted these statistics, which — interestingly enough — were not included in the cover letter sent to his office by Alpha lawyer Victor Hou:

At former Massey mines, the total reportable incident rate, a statistic measuring overall accidents, fell from 5.74 in the quarter just after Alpha assumed control to 3.86 in the quarter after the Agreement, a decline of 32.8%. Non-fatal days lost, a measure of injuries, dropped from 3.23 in the quarter just after Alpha assumed control to 2.45 in the quarter after the Agreement, a decrease of 24%.

Not mentioned in the U.S. Attorney’s press release were other recent incidents, such as serious citations following the death of a worker at an Alpha contract mine in Virginia, the deaths this year of two Alpha miners in West Virginia (see here and here), personal citations issued to five Alpha mine managers following one of those West Virginia deaths, or the conveyor belt incident at Alpha’s Road Fork No. 51 Mine which — while downplayed by state investigators and the company — troubled federal inspectors enough that MSHA launched the largest inspection sweep of a single company in agency history.