Coal Tattoo

Anyone who reads it  knows that Bray Cary’s newspaper is hardly a major voice for anti-coal environmental extremism … so you have to wonder what the coal association’s Chris Hamilton will say about today’s State Journal editorial.

Under the headline  W.Va. Citizens Need to Look Beyond Coal, the paper’s editors say:

Coal is a major part of who we are, but we must expand our economy.

According to a recent report, coal reserves in Central Appalachia are running out.

Some smaller mining operations have been forced to close, and even giant companies such as Arch Coal do not paint a rosy picture for the future.

That’s a scary thought for West Virginia. For generations, many people in this state have derived their livelihood from coal, but it runs far deeper than that. Our state is synonymous with coal — it’s at the very core, both literally and figuratively, of who are. We’ve built entire cities around mines, and the men and women who dig it out of the ground have not only fought wars to ensure their safety, but, sadly far too many who made the trip underground never came back out.

The editorial continues:

Looking beyond coal may not be popular, but honesty is an important part of this debate. While we must never marginalize what has been the cornerstone of our economy, we have to be realistic about what we’re facing. We need to do all we can to give the next generation of West Virginians the chance to make a life for themselves and their families in this wonderful state.



Happy Labor Day

A union coal miner at work at Alpha Natural Resources’ Emerald Mine in Greene County, Pa. Photo by Phil Smith, UMWA Journal.

It’s a good day not only to spend time with family and friends, but to remember the workers who do so much for all of us … Here’s hoping everyone has a safe and enjoyable day.

Read about the history of the holiday from the U.S. Department of Labor, Wikipedia,  or the AFL-CIO.

Will Rep. McKinley attend citizen meeting?

Well, according to the Daily Mail, Rep. David McKinley took in $20,000 at a fundraiser over at The Greenbrier, where West Virginia’s leaders of business and industry are holding their annual summit.

But so far, his office has declined to say whether he’s planning to accept an invitation to meet publicly with citizens who are concerned about his stance on the regulation of toxic coal-ash. Citizen groups invited him to the meeting at noon tomorrow in Chester, W.Va.

Katie Martin, a spokeswoman for Rep. McKinley, told me earlier this week:

We will continue to meet with constituents across the 1st District like we have been doing since Rep. McKinley was elected into Congress. If this group or any group or individual would like to join Rep. McKinley at a town hall or forum he will host in the coming months, they are invited to do so.

But so far, she hasn’t responded to my question about whether Rep. McKinley will accept the citizens’ invitation to attend their meeting tomorrow. The citizens also proposed a number of other dates … so stay tuned.

Tomblin names Phillips to W.Va. safety job

This just in from the office of Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced today that he appointed C.A. Phillips to the position of director of the Office of Miners Safety Health and Training.

“Because of his extensive experience with the mining industry and his dedication to the health and safety of West Virginia miners, I believe C.A. is the right man for the job,” said Gov. Tomblin. “C.A. is well versed in the needs and protection of miners and I am pleased that he has accepted the position permanently.”

Phillips, who has been serving as acting director since November 2010, is a McDowell County native who has worked in and around the mining industry since 1969. He was a miner and fireboss for the Olga Coal Company, and then went on to work as a Health and Safety Representative with the United Mine Workers of America. In 2001, he was appointed deputy director of the WVOMHST by former Gov. Bob Wise before later being appointed to the role of acting director in 2010 by Gov. Tomblin.

Mr. Phillips and his wife Tina reside in Summers, County.

MSHA announces latest impact inspection results

Here’s the word today from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced that federal inspectors issued 375 citations and orders during special impact inspections conducted at 10 coal mines and five metal/nonmetal mines last month. The coal mines were issued 232 citations and 24 orders, while the metal/nonmetal operations were issued 108 citations and 11 orders.

Special impact inspections, which began in force in April 2010 following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, involve mines that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns, including high numbers of violations or closure orders; indications of operator tactics, such as advance notification of inspections that prevent inspectors from observing violations; frequent hazard complaints or hotline calls; plan compliance issues; inadequate workplace examinations; a high number of accidents, injuries or illnesses; fatalities; and adverse conditions such as increased methane liberation, faulty roof conditions and inadequate ventilation.

As an example from last month’s impact inspections, on July 22, MSHA inspectors arrived during the second shift at Wilcoal Mining Inc.’s Tri-State One Mine located in Claiborne County, Tenn. The inspection party immediately seized and monitored communications at the mine to prevent advance notification. More than two-thirds of 32 citations and orders issued were designated as significant and substantial. The impact inspection was the sixth conducted at this mine.

MSHA issued eight unwarrantable failure closure orders for conditions that presented serious hazards in the event of a fire, explosion or other emergency that could prevent miners from safely exiting the mine. The operator was cited for failure to maintain a primary escapeway for safe travel due to the presence of lumber, other debris and water up to 10 inches in depth; inadequate pre-shift examinations; failure to conduct a proper electrical examination; use of a water pump without a fail-safe ground system in the primary escapeway; not providing the required number of self-contained self-rescuers at the section storage location as well as two-way communications for one of the mine’s refuge alternatives on the active section; and inadequate ventilation.

Twenty-four 104(a) citations were issued for hazardous conditions that, if left unchecked, could potentially cause or contribute to a roof fall, mine fire or explosion. These violations concerned a lack of emergency roof support supplies; improper roof bolt spacing; excessive coal accumulation; misaligned and unguarded conveyor belts, and a damaged conveyor belt roller; nonworking ventilation control doors; improperly maintained and nonpermissible electrical equipment; noncompliance with the approved emergency response plan; and nonfunctioning communication and tracking systems.

Tri-State One Mine was one of 13 operations to receive a letter from MSHA in November 2010 that placed it on notice of a potential pattern of violations of mandatory health or safety standards under Section 104(e) of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

As a second example from last month, MSHA issued 13 citations and orders during an impact inspection conducted on July 1 at Inman Energy’s Randolph Mine, located in Boone County, W.Va. The inspection party arrived at 4 a.m. and captured the phones prior to proceeding. The impact inspection was the second conducted this year at the mine.

Six unwarrantable failure closure orders were issued for accumulations of combustible materials on the working section from the feeder to the face, overhanging rock brows on the working section that were not adequately supported or otherwise controlled, failure to follow the mine’s approved ventilation plan, miners not being made aware of the designated responsible person on duty, and failure to conduct and record adequate pre-shift and on-shift examinations. Inspectors also cited a number of violations involving other hazardous conditions, including permanent ventilation controls that were not properly constructed or otherwise maintained, accumulation of water in a return air course, an unguarded high-voltage cable, improper storage of compressed oxygen cylinders and inadequate support of a kettle bottom in the mine roof.

“The closure order is still one of the most effective tools inspectors have to bring about compliance, even during impact inspections,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “We will not hesitate to use these and other enforcement tools to protect the nation’s miners.”

Since April 2010, MSHA has conducted 307 impact inspections, which have resulted in 5,526 citations, 518 orders and 19 safeguards.

MSHA has posted a summary of the inspection results here.


Judge to lawmakers: ‘Beef up” WVDEP

I’m just back from a status conference where U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver heard from citizen groups, state officials and the federal government regarding the status of West Virginia’s Special Reclamation Fund — the WVDEP program meant to clean up coal-mine sites abandoned since 1977.

Judge Copenhaver didn’t rule on any issues in either of the matters before him, but he did strongly suggest that the West Virginia Legislature needs to “beef up the DEP” so that the agency can move more quickly in cleaning up these abandoned mining operations. The judge said:

I’m fearful that we’ll find out that even this schedule won’t be met and even this will be delayed.

The judge was talking about the schedule included as part of a settlement between WVDEP and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, in which the state agrees to improve water pollution treatment at dozens of abandoned sites around the state.

Judge Copenhaver is considering whether to approve that settlement, and also is considering a separate legal effort by the Highlands Conservancy to force the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to take over West Virginia’s special reclamation program.

We’ll have more on this in tomorrow’s Saturday Gazette-Mail.

MSHA gets court order in tracking device case

Here’s something just in from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

A federal judge with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania has issued a preliminary injunction ordering Darryl Koperna, doing business as S&M Coal Co., to stop mining at the Buck Mountain Slope Mine in Lykens, Pa., due to Koperna’s violation of a closure order previously issued by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

MSHA issued the closure order as a result of S&M’s continued failure to purchase and install a wireless tracking and communication system as required by its emergency response plan as well as the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006. A wireless tracking and communication system would provide a means to easily locate miners and enable them to communicate with rescuers and each other in an emergency situation.

“S&M’s refusal to comply with this order as well as the requirements of the MINER Act threaten the safety of workers at this mine, and must be halted immediately,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary for mine safety and health. “This preliminary injunction sends a very clear message: Mine operators who disregard the law will be held accountable.”

The preliminary injunction orders S&M to stop mining activities until it has complied with its emergency response plan and the MINER Act. Specifically, it prohibits S&M from permitting any person, except persons whose presence is necessary to install the wireless tracking and communication system, to enter any portion of the mine until the closure order has been terminated, modified or withdrawn; operating the mine until a complete inspection of the mine has been conducted, and any cited violations have been abated and terminated; and violating any closure order issued by MSHA in the future.

The judge also denied a cross-motion for preliminary injunction filed by S&M, which had requested that the closure order be vacated, among other relief.


DOJ looking into inaction by Massey execs, board

Here’s another interesting tidbit from today’s MSHA briefing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster:

Top MSHA officials say that they understand that the U.S. Department of Justice is looking into allegations — raised in civil litigation against Massey and its board members — that the former Massey board of directors was aware of serious safety problems at Upper Big Branch, but did little or nothing to remedy those problems.

We’ve reported before on Coal Tattoo about court records that spell out a series of inactions by Massey’s board in the face of mounting safety troubles at UBB and other Massey operations, and about specific knowledge the Massey board was given about the lack of proper rock-dusting at Upper Big Branch.

During a press conference, I asked MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin about these revelations, and if MSHA was including an examination of them in its UBB probe, and Kevin told the media:

That information is being looked at by the Department of Justice.

In an interview later, I asked MSHA chief  Joe Main if he was confident the Obama administration would seek criminal charges against any corporate officers found by investigators to have committed crimes that played a role in the mine disaster, and Joe told me:

I have every confidence that they [the DOJ] are carrying out a full and thorough investigation.

New petition seeks to protect Blair Mountain

This just in via press release:

A broad coalition of community, environmental, historic preservation and labor history groups filed a petition today to protect the site of the largest civil uprising in America after the Civil War from surface coal mining. The petition was filed today by the Sierra Club, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Friends of Blair Mountain, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Labor History Association, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. It states that the Blair Mountain Battlefield should be deemed unsuitable for surface coal mining by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection due to its historical significance, natural beauty and the important archaeological sites located there.

Blair Mountain was the site of a historic clash between coal miners seeking to unionize and management and local law enforcement that put a violent end to their efforts. From August 25 to September 2, 1921, the two sides fought a series of violent battles. This significant event in the history of the U.S. labor movement was only brought to a close by the intervention of federal troops by Presidential order. Last year, Blair Mountain was removed from the National Register of Historic Places.

“Blair Mountain is a critical piece of West Virginia’s history,” said Bill Price, a local Sierra Club organizer. “It should stand as a historic reminder of the sacrifices that miners were forced to make to fuel America and should be protected from destructive, unsustainable and job killing mountain top removal mining.”

From June 6-11, activists from across the country will converge on Blair Mountain to re-enact the historic miners’ march to celebrate the 90th anniversary. The march will culminate in a rally to call for an end to mountaintop removal mining, support of labor rights, the preservation of Blair Mountain and sustainable job creation.

“This is more than a West Virginian crisis. This is an environmental crisis and a historical crisis,” said Barbara Rasmussen, president of Friends of Blair Mountain. “Every person in America who has a steady job, a decent wage, and health and retirement benefits owes his or her well being to the brave miners who stood to demand basic human dignity, human rights and safe working conditions in the coal mining industry. Sid Hatfield and the other men who died for workers’ rights in the coal fields and elsewhere deserve the respect that will come from commemorating this mountain as the profoundly historically significant place that it is. I believe it is a terrible act of social violence to tear down other people’s monuments, particularly when they can never be restored. Blair Mountain should be sacred to working people everywhere.”

Continue reading…

Here’s a speech Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., delivered today on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Little more than a year ago, 29 coal miners lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

Our nation watched with sadness as this small community felt the lash of the worst coal mine tragedy in this country in four decades.

Shortly after the tragedy, our nation promised these families to get to the bottom of what happened. And we promised to make sure something like this would never happens again.

The good news is that we have learned a lot about what caused this tragedy in the last year. Last month an independent panel of experts appointed by the governor of West Virginia released the results of a 13-month long investigation.

They concluded that the explosion was preventable. The panel said that warning signs about dangerous conditions in the mine were ignored leading up to the tragedy.

Continue reading…

Documents: Alpha would have hired Blankenship

There’s a flurry of new reports out about the impending buyout of Massey Energy by Alpha Natural Resources. Shareholders of the two companies are set to consider the proposed $8.5 billion deal on June 1 — but there’s a hearing scheduled for Thursday in a Delaware courtroom as part of a last-ditch effort to block the transaction.

We’ve got an updated story tonight on recently unsealed documents in that case, in which we report:

Massey Energy executives moved toward a sale to Alpha Natural Resources as internal pressures grew for a broad-ranging examination of — and potentially major reforms in — the company’s long-troubled safety practices, according to new court documents made public Tuesday.

In November, a committee from Massey’s board of directors was prepared to recommend creation of a “blue-ribbon” panel of outside safety experts, similar to the Baker Panel created by BP after the deaths of 15 workers in a 2005 refinery explosion.

The board committee also had determined that a change in the top leadership at Massey — including then-CEO Don Blankenship — was needed to rebuild the company’s reputation and to regain the confidence of shareholders, regulators and public officials, according to the court documents, filed by lawyers who are seeking to block the Massey-Alpha transaction.

“The board thus realized that Blankenship had to go,” the lawyers, representing a group of Massey shareholders, said in a legal brief supporting their argument for a preliminary injunction to at least stall the merger.

But here’s something else that those court documents say: Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield testified under oath in a legal deposition that his company was prepared to give Blankenship a job as a consultant after the merger.

Blankenship, of course, “retired” after unsuccessfully opposing the Alpha buyout of Massey. But this new information  adds another twist to the continuing concerns being raised in the media, by independent investigator Davitt McAteer and by the United Mine Workers about Alpha’s plan to hire some of the more controversial folks currently working for Massey Energy.

And it’s particular fascinating if it’s true that, as these court documents allege, Alpha’s own due diligence reports showed this about Massey:

The entire Massey organization appears to be managed by an autocratic central command and control structure. This can be seen in all facets of the organization and results in senior operating management being involved in lower level mine issues and decisions.

The Massey culture is driven by a strong focus on production and its associated components with other facets of the operations such as employee safety and regulatory compliance receiving minimal consideration.

Continue reading…

Massey-Alpha merger situation heating up

As the June 1 date for shareholders of Alpha Natural Resources and Massey Energy to vote on Alpha’s takeover of Massey, litigation over the potential $8 billion deal is definitely heating up.

We reported earlier today on a lawsuit filed in Boone County by families of some of the miners who died in Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster related to the proposed purchase of Massey by Alpha.  Basically, this suit alleges that the transaction is a great deal for Massey insiders — who stand to profit greatly from it — and puts at risk the ability of the victims’ families to recover from lawsuits over the April 5, 2010, explosion.  The suit alleges:

[Massey] is a corporation with considerable assets, including some of the best coal reserves in the central Appalachian region.

As a result of the misconduct and mismanagement of the insider defendants… all assets of [Massey] are being transferred to Alpha in the merger. In doing so, the insider defendants, as well as other members of management, including former CEO Don Blankenship, are liquidating risk into cash and are able to walk away from the merger with substantial amounts of cash while the plaintiff creditors will have nothing more than unsecured claims against a highly leveraged, cash-poor company.

And over at NPR, Howard Berkes reported today on what he called “last-ditch attempts by some Massey shareholders to block the deal.

Continue reading…

The Kentucky Darby Disaster, May 20, 2006

While the focus this week has been on the McAteer team’s independent report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster,  it’s worth remembering that this is the 5th anniversary of the May 20, 2006, explosion that killed five miners at Kentucky Darby LLC’s Darby No. 1 Mine in Harlan County, Ky.

The Kentucky Darby Disaster claimed the lives of coal miners Amon Brock, Jimmy Lee, Roy Middleton, George Petra, and Paris Thomas. Injured in the disaster was miner Paul Ledford.

It’s worth noting that, despite the Sago Mine Disaster on Jan. 2, 2006, and the Aracoma Alma fire on Jan. 19 — claiming a total of 14 lives — Congress didn’t pass the MINER Act until after five more miners died at Kentucky Darby.

In its report on the disaster, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded:

An explosion occurred at approximately 1:00 a.m. on May 20, 2006, inby the A Left No. 3 Seal. The explosion resulted in the immediate deaths of two miners who were located at the seal. Three of four miners evacuating from the B Left Section succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning with smoke and soot inhalation.

The accident occurred because the operator did not observe basic mine safety practices and because critical safety standards were violated. Mine management failed to ensure that proper seal construction procedures were utilized in the building of the seals at the A Left Section. Mine management also failed to ensure that safe work procedures were used while employees attempted to make corrections to an improperly constructed seal. Furthermore, mine management failed to adequately train miners in escapeway routes and proper SCSR usage.

The company was fined $342,000 for six violations of safety standards. But not one cent has been paid.

Two years ago, MSHA officials sued the company to try to collect the penalties … but they’re still listed as not having been paid.

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…

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 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 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.”

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.

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.


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.