Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster
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Coordinates: 37.937256°N 81.543572°W
The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster occurred on April 5, 2010 about 1,000 feet (300 m) underground in Raleigh County, West Virginia at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine located in Montcoal . Twenty-nine out of thirty-one miners at the site were killed. The explosion occurred at 3:27 pm. The accident was the worst in the United States since 1970, when 38 miners were killed at Finley Coal Company's No. 15 and 16 mines in Hyden, Kentucky. A state funded independent investigation would later find Massey Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) directly responsible for the blast.
The MSHA released its final report on
December 6, 2011, concluding that flagrant safety violations contributed to a coal dust explosion. It issued 369 citations at that time, assessing $10.8 million in penalties. Alpha Natural Resources, which had bought Massey Energy in 2011, settled its corporate criminal liabilities with the U.S. Attorney for $209 million. Investigation of possible personal criminal liability continues, with one former superintendent, Gary May, pleading guilty in March, 2012, and "confess[ing] to conspiring to 'impede the [MSHA]'s enforcement efforts'".
The explosion occurred at 3:27 PM local time (19:27 UTC) on Monday, April 5, 2010, at the Upper Big Branch South Mine near the community of Montcoal, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Charleston. The mine is operated by the Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. High methane levels were detected and subsequently an explosion from an unknown source occurred. Twenty-five men were initially identified as killed. Four days later, the four missing men were found dead for a total of 29 deaths. Investigators later faulted Massey Energy for failure to properly maintain its ventilation systems which allowed methane levels to increase to dangerous amounts.
Rescue and recovery mission
Emergency crews initially gathered at one of the portals for the Upper Big Branch Mine in Birchton, West Virginia, about 2 miles north of Montcoal and 3 miles south of Whitesville on Route 3 (on the west side of the road). Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, stated 25 were reported dead and 4 unaccounted for. There are four boreholes to the mine; rescuers said they must drill 1,200 feet (370 m) through one of them to reach the affected area where survivors were located. Officials stated that there are two rescue chambers – ventilated rooms with basic supplies for survival – in the mine. On
April 6, 2010, at , high levels of methane and carbon monoxide were detected forcing the team of rescuers to higher ground, further delaying the search.
By Wednesday April 7, 11 bodies had been recovered while 14 still had not. Although there were no indications that the four missing miners were still alive, the operations continued in rescue mode, rather than moving to recovery. Governor Joe Manchin
III of West Virginia said, "Everyone is holding on to the hope that is their father, their son." On the morning of April 8, 2010 the rescue efforts were suspended due to dangerous levels of methane in the mine. Smoke in the mine, still present on April 9, indicated that there was an active fire in the mine making conditions hazardous for rescuers. Rescue attempts were set to resume later that day.
According to an Associated Press story the two safety chambers in the mine are inflatable units made by Strata Safety Products with air, water, sanitary facilities, and food sufficient to support more than a dozen miners for about four days; they could possibly support four miners for longer than 96 hours, though only if any miners managed to reach a chamber after the blast.
Late on April 9, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin announced that the bodies of the 4 miners had been found, bringing the death toll to 29. The miners had not made it to either of the safety chambers. Conditions were so bad in the mine that rescuers who were in the mine on the first day of rescue unknowingly walked past the bodies of the four miners.
Due to the large concentration of toxic gases in the mine, MSHA investigators had to wait for over two months to enter the mine for investigation. Investigators were able to enter the mine on July 2, 2010.
May 19, 2011, the independent investigation team released a report which faulted both Massey Energy and the MSHA for the blast. Massey was strongly condemned by the report for multiple failures to meet basic safety standards outlined in the Mine Act of 1977. “A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking,” read the report. “The company's ventilation system did not adequately ventilate the mine. As a result, explosive gases were allowed to build up.” Also detailed in the report are allegations that Massey Energy threatened miners with termination if they stopped work in areas that lacked adequate oxygen levels. Numerous other state and federal safety standards that Massey failed to comply with were detailed in the report.
Investigators also say that the U.S. Department of Labor and its Mine Safety and Health Administration were at fault for failing to act decisively at the mine even after Massey was issued 515 citations for safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2009. The report lambastes MSHA inspectors for failing to issue a flagrant violation citation which could have fined the company up to $220,000. Investigators claimed that this citation was entirely necessary given Massey's failure to meet basic safety protocols and the investigators found it “disturbing” that the violation was not issued. The failure to issue flagrant violation citations was attributed to MSHA which also failed to notify the miners and their families that they were working in a mine which had not met minimal safety requirements. As further evidence of MSHA's failures in the lead up to the
UBB mine explosion, the report discusses how MSHA safety inspectors failed to enforce the safety protocols at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma #1 mine. In 2007, a fire broke out at the Aracoma Alma #1 mine killing two miners. The report described the fire as “preventable” and cites an internal MSHA review following the fire which found that inspectors “were shocked by the deplorable conditions of the mine” and that MSHA inspectors had “failed” to enforce adequate safety measures. Furthermore the report outlines how in the lead up to the blast the UBB mine “experienced at least three major methane-related events”. One in 1997, another in 2003, and a third in 2004. Instead of addressing these issues, “Upper Big Branch management elected to consider each methane outburst or explosion as an anomaly.” Furthermore, MSHA officials “did not compel (or to our knowledge even ask) UBB management to implement,” safety precautions following these events.
The report claims that Massey used its power “to attempt to control
West Virginia's political system.” The report cites how politicians were afraid of the company because it “was willing to spend vast amounts of money to influence elections.” Massey intentionally neglected safety precautions for the purpose of increasing profit margins according to the report. Safety precautions in mines are “a hard-earned right paid for with the blood of coal miners” read the report's introduction.
In addition to MSHA, the FBI has also launched a probe, investigating possible criminal wrongdoing at the mine, including criminal negligence and possible bribery of federal regulators.
Prior history of safety violations and fatalities
In 2009, the company, Massey Energy, was fined a total of $382,000 for "serious" unrepentant violations for lacking ventilation and proper equipment plans as well as failing to utilize its safety plan properly. In the previous month, the authorities cited the mine for 57 safety infractions. The mine received two citations the day before the explosion and in the last five years has been cited for 1,342 safety violations. The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, has received criticism for his apparent disregard of safety. The Upper Big Branch Mine-South, where the explosion occurred, has been in operation since October 1994. Between 2000 and 2009, two fatalities occurred at this mine.
In the previous year 50 of the safety violations, more than 10%, were categorized as "unwarrantable failures to comply," which indicates willful or gross negligence. This was higher than the 2% national average.
MSHA final report and Dept. of Justice settlement
December 6, 2011, the MSHA concluded its investigation, deciding that the disaster was an entirely preventable coal dust explosion. It said "the root cause of the tragedy" was "unlawful policies and practices" of the company and issued 369 citations at the same time as the report.
On the same day the U.S. Attorney announced a settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which had acquired Massey Energy's assets and liabilities in 2011.
Alpha Natural Resources will pay a MSHA $10.8 civil fine plus $209 million for the Dept. of Justice settlement. The settlement comprises $46.5 million in restitution payments, $34.8 million in fines for safety citations, $48 million for a health and safety research and development trust fund, and $80 million for safety improvements during two years. The restitution payments are $1.5 million to each of the two survivors and the families of each the 29 fatal casualties. The civil fine is about 5 times bigger than the previous largest fine for a mining accident. The settlement ends the corporation's criminal liability, although investigation of possible individual criminal liability continues.
The 1000 page MSHA report dismissed Massey Energy's theory of a sudden surge of natural gas. It said 12 of its citations were related to the disaster, including 9 in the most severe "flagrant" category. Most important was failure to check for methane and failure to clean up coal dust. It recounted examples of a corporate culture more devoted to production than safety, and recounted examples of employees sanctioned for delaying production in order to resolve safety issues.
While the investigation found the physical conditions that led to the coal dust explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at
UBB, which PCC and Massey disregarded, the report cites unlawful policies and practices implemented by PCC and Massey as the root cause of the explosion --- including the intimidation of miners, advance notice of inspections, and two sets of books with hazards recorded in UBB's internal production and maintenance book but not in the official examination book. The investigation found that the operator 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.
— MHSA News Release 11-1703-
Cover of the MSHA Journeymen Report
State and federal leaders, including Governor Manchin, United States Senators Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, United States Representative Shelly Moore Capito, and Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America, all expressed their condolences to the families of the workers. On April 5, 2010, Governor Manchin and President of the United States Barack Obama spoke over the phone; the president expressed his condolences and offered federal assistance. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army have sent workers to the scene to provide emergency response vehicles, mental health counselors, food and water.
Davitt McAteer, former leader of the Mine Safety and Health Administration had harsh words for the disaster citing lessons unlearned from the 2006 Sago Mine disaster: "That was defining of Sago. That was one of the first things that we are not doing enough and we know how to remove methane and control dust problems and the fact that we had an explosion with methane or dust suggests that we are not doing enough to protect miners.” Days before the disaster a United States Department of Labor report emerged entitled "Journeyman Mine Inspectors Do Not Receive Required Periodic Training". The report detailed the federal governments shortcomings in retraining its mine inspectors.
Massey Energy is the sixth largest coal company in the country, owning 56 mines. Historically, this area of
West Virginia has been dependent on coal production and on Massey Energy. Relatives of the missing and confirmed dead expressed their anger that they were not notified directly by Massey Energy executives, but found out information from the company website or government sources. "They're supposed to be a big company," said Michelle McKinney, daughter of a missing employee, "These guys, they took a chance every day to work and make them big. And they couldn't even call us." McKinney was alerted of the incident by a local school.
Ted Turner commented on CNN about the mine disaster, stating "I'm just wondering if God is telling us He doesn't want to drill offshore (in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off of the
). And right before that, we had that coal mine disaster in West Virginia where we lost 29 miners ... Maybe the Lord's tired of having the mountains of West Virginia, the tops knocked off of them so they may get more coal. I think maybe we ought to just leave the coal in the ground and go with solar and wind power and geothermals..." Gulf of Mexico.
The West Virginia University Mountaineers will wear Nike Pro Combat System of Dress uniforms designed to pay respect to the deadly explosion at the Big Branch Mine, for the 2010 Backyard Brawl against the rivial Pitt Panthers. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review,
West Virginia will wear a shade of white "that looks as if it has a fine layer of dust on the jersey" and has accents in university gold that "references the canaries used long ago to test toxicity in mines." The helmet has a thin yellow line, designed to look like "the beam of light emitted by a miner's headlamp." 
A group of three students involved in the West Virginia Uncovered program at
's West Virginia University of Journalism are in the process of developing an interactive memorial named Faces of the mine that will honor the 29 lost miners. The website, based mostly on community contributions, is planned to be officially launched on P.I. Reed School April 5, 2011 in honor of the one-year anniversary of the disaster. The students will also hand the website over to community members who have been involved throughout the building process to moderate and maintain the site.
In popular culture
Singer-songwriter Ray Harris (
Canada)'s song "West Virginia Coal Mine" is a song about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. The song is written from the point of view of a miner.
"'People who run coal mines have a fundamental obligation to be honest with mine regulators,' said Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, in announcing ... [May's 2012] plea deal. 'When mine operators resort to tricks and deceit to keep government officials in the dark, our mine safety system unravels and miners are put in harm's way.' May owned up to giving advance warning of inspections and concealing violations including 'poor airflow in the mine; piles of loose, combustible coal; and scarcities of rock dust, which prevents mine explosions,' the government said." When the plea was announced, he faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.