Coal Tattoo

UBB update: Don Blankenship is at it again

It seems that having walked away from Massey Energy $12 million richer, former CEO Don Blankenship just won’t leave well enough alone — at least not as far as the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster is concerned.

Over on his website, Blankenship has a collection of new “essays” about coal-mine safety (see here, here and here) that includes this discussion of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. Here’s Blankenship:

Now to my purpose in this essay – the coal mining industry needs to be keenly aware of the dangers of natural gas inundations in coal mines.* The industry and our government have for decades developed laws essentially directed at the detection and removal of “coal bed methane gas.” Little focus has ever been placed on “natural gas” or “out of seam gas.” This is true despite the fact that natural gas is slightly more explosive than what is commonly called coalbed methane, and that it can appear unexpectedly, suddenly, and in very large quantities.

The likely reason that natural gas inundations have not been the focus of MSHA or the coal industry is that recognizable inundations of natural gas into coal mines are rare. However, post the UBB explosion it is clear that natural gas mine inundations do occur in at least certain Boone and Raleigh County, West Virginia mines.

Many in the government are still blinded by their political loyalties and refuse to acknowledge that the sudden inundation of natural gas almost certainly caused the UBB explosion. Gas samples (taken by MSHA) and hydro-carbon testing immediately following the explosion clearly showed the presence of large amounts of natural gas continuing to be liberated from the mine. Testing clearly showed that this gas was out-of-seam natural gas and not coalbed methane.

Now, we’ve heard this all before from Blankenship and other Massey officials (see previous posts here, here and here, for example). But interestingly, there seems to be a bit of a change in the rhetoric from Blankenship this time around.

Previously, Blankenship has blamed the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster on a natural gas inundation and made out like the whole thing was not preventable:

I’m a realist. The politicians will tell you we’re going to do something so this never happens again you won’t hear me say that. Because I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do. Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable just as other accidents are in society.

But now, Blankenship is demanding that government officials take action:

Since the Upper Big Branch accident the media and the politicians have been too busy casting blame to truly assess what happened and what actions they might take or laws they might pass to reduce the chances of another natural gas explosion. However the lack of concern does not change the fact that it will happen again. MSHA and NIOSH (National Institute of Safety and Health) must be required by lawmakers, the mining industry, the UMWA, coal miners, and the media to address this very serious safety issue. Any failure to improve the detection of natural gas inundations and to better define the geological circumstances under which they are more likely to occur means that politicians have broken their promise to “make sure this never happens again.”

Jami Cash, daughter of dead coal miner Michael Elswick, attends a vigil following the Upper Big Branch Memorial Service, Tuesday, April 5, 2011, in Whitesville, W.Va. The memorial was for the 29 coal miners who were killed in an explosion at the mine one year ago in Montcoal, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Now, as difficult as many folks might find this to take, Blankenship has a point here. We broke the story long ago about how there had been previous methane outbursts at the Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the 2010 explosion. And we’ve reported on how the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s own investigation concluded that exactly this sort of methane leak likely was part of what began the chain of events that killed those 29 miners. And we revealed how MSHA blocked questions by independent investigator Davitt McAteer’s team about what federal officials did — and didn’t do — to follow-up on the previous methane incidents at Upper Big Branch.

But it’s also important to remember that every independent expert that has investigated the Upper Big Branch Disaster has rejected Blankenship’s broader take on events there, and his effort to place the blame on anything but Massey and the company’s failure to take very basic safety precautions. McAteer’s team, for example, said in its report:

… Even if the cause of the explosion had been found to be an infusion of natural gas or methane into the UBB mine atmosphere, such an event was entirely foreseeable. The previous incidents in 1997, 2003 and 2004 were well documented and should have served as ample warning for the company and provided an incentive to develop and follow a plan to deal with future outbursts.

And, McAteer’s team included in its report an entire chapter which debunks the notion of an uncontrollable natural gas inundation, and supports the conclusion that the disaster involved a small methane ignition that only turned into a huge explosion because Massey had failed to control the buildup of coal dust at the mine:

Ultimately, the footprint left behind in the Upper Big Branch mine and the testimony of survivors supports the initial theory that the explosion started with methane and fed on coal dust as it tore through the mine. The footprint, supported by witness testimony, also offered concrete evidence that Massey Energy failed in its responsibility to provide a safe workplace for its workers.

United Mine Workers union safety experts concluded in their own report:

Some of the most deadly mine disasters in history have been the result of mine operators violating the mandatory requirements of this section of the Mine Act. This is what happened at UBB. The final deadly event was played out on April 5, 2010, but one of the major causes of the explosion–float coal dust–was permitted to accumulate for months before the explosion. These accumulations were widespread, encompassing almost all of the active sections and intake and return air courses. Many of the citations issued in just the fifteen months before the explosion demonstrate how imminent this danger was. 

The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training concluded:

The methane explosion quickly transitioned into a coal dust explosion, which severely damaged ventilation controls, conveyor belts, water lines, electrical systems and numerous items in its path until the fuel was consumed and the explosion extinguished itself outby the track switch at the beginning of North Glory Mains. The amount of rock dust being maintained on mine surfaces at the time of the explosion was insufficient to stop a coal dust explosion. The region where the dust explosion started does not appear to have had rock dust periodically applied over the fine coal dust. Periodic applications of rock dust over accumulating fine coal dust are necessary to render such dust harmless.

And MSHA found in its investigation report:

PCC/Massey allowed conditions in the UBB mine to exist that set the stage for a catastrophic mine explosion. The tragedy at UBB began with a methane ignition that transitioned into a small methane explosion that then set off a massive coal dust explosion. If basic safety measures had been in place that prevented any of these three events, there would have been no loss of life at UBB.

Moreover, MSHA reported:

While violations of particular safety standards led to the conditions that caused the explosion, the unlawful policies and practices implemented by PCC/Massey were the root cause of this tragedy. The evidence accumulated during the investigation demonstrates that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.

The investigation also revealed multiple examples of systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators.

And, MSHA concluded:

Massey routinely ignored obvious safety hazards and let conditions develop that allowed a small methane ignition to propagate into a massive coal dust explosion.  The tragic deaths of 29 miners and serious injuries to two others at Upper Big Branch were entirely preventable.