A report released yesterday by independent investigators blames Massey Energy owner of the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virgina for the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. According to the report, Massey “operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking.” Upper Big Branch was a non-union mine.
The investigation team was led by Davitt McAteer, former Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Clinton. The investigation was requested by Sen. Joe Manchin, who at the time of the explosion was governor of West Virginia.
“We in the UMWA hear about these types of conditions all the time from former and current Massey miners,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. “It is somewhat surprising, though heartening, to see a discussion of it in this report.”
The report suggests that at Massey production, and thus profit, was paramount; safety was a dim afterthought. Production, not safety, was monitored scrupulously. A purchasing agent at Upper Big Branch received production reports detailing the amount of coal produced each half hour and relayed these reports to upper management at the highest level, including the office of Don Blankenship, Massey’s CEO.
When production was interrupted to deal with a safety hazard or to fix broken equipment, there was always pressure to get the coal back on the conveyor belts that brought it to the surface. On the day of the explosion, production had been interrupted by flooding caused by malfunctioning water pumps. Survivors of the blast also complained that the ventilation system was not working properly.
Massey contends that the explosion was the result of an unavoidable accident. Immediately after the accident, a rumor was floated suggesting that an earthquake or, perhaps, a bolt of lightning from a nearby thunderstorm caused the explosion. A few weeks after the explosion, Massey officials said that the blast was an act of God: A huge, unpreventable fissure in the mine floor suddenly released an enormous amount of methane, which then ignited and exploded.
The report, however, dismisses this theory as little more than a legal strategy designed to avoid liability. Instead, the report finds that the blast could have been prevented if the company had followed basic safety procedures.
The explosion occurred when a coal mining machine shearing away coal from a longwall released methane gas. A spark from the machine caused the methane to ignite, which in turn caused coal dust in the air to explode.
It’s common for small pockets of methane to be released during the mining process, and these releases can be ignited by the sparks that the machine makes while gnawing coal away from the interspersed rock. That’s why these machines have water sprays close to the cutting blade that douse sparks. Some of the water sprays on the 25-year old shearing machine, however, were not working.
Keeping coal dust to minimum also reduces the chances of a spark igniting a catastrophic explosion. A well-designed ventilation system can remove coal dust and dangerous gases from a mine. But the report finds that Upper Big Bend’s ventilation system was poorly designed and poorly maintained.
In January 2010, three months before the explosion, a federal mine inspector noted Upper Big Branch management showed a “reckless disregard” for worker safety “when they told a foreman to ignore a citation the mine received for faulty ventilation.”
An autopsy of the deceased miners further suggests that the mine’s ventilation system was inadequate. Of the 29 miners who died, 24 had sufficient remains that allowed an autopsy. Of the 24, 17, or 71 percent, showed evidence of Black Lung disease. The national average for Black Lung among miners is 3.4 percent; it’s 7.6 percent in West Virginia. Coal dust is the main cause of Black Lung.
In addition to causing Black Lung, coal dust is highly flammable, but it can be rendered inert and less flammable when dusted with crushed limestone. This procedure is called rock dusting. The report says that a mine as big as Upper Big Branch should be dusted once a day on each of the three shifts.
Upper Big Branch had only a two-man rock dusting crew. One of the crew members said that they only dusted about three days a week because they were often called away to work on other jobs. When they dusted, the machine they used often broke down because it was old.
At Upper Big Branch, there was no union. There was no independent safety committee to hold management accountable for worker safety. There was only the imperative to dig as much coal as possible as quickly as possible.