by Paula C. Squires
The U. S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said Tuesday that a massive coal dust explosion — which could have been prevented — caused the lethal blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia last year that took the lives of 29 coal miners in the worst coal mining disaster in the U.S. in 40 years.
The results of the federal agency’s long-awaited investigation, released Tuesday, placed the blame for the accident squarely at the feet of the mine’s former owner, Richmond-based Massey Energy Co. At the time of the blast, it operated Upper Big Branch in Montcoal, W. Va., through a subsidiary, Performance Coal Co.
In an executive summary of the report’s findings, the MSHA said, “The physical conditions that led to the explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at UBB and were entirely preventable … 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 …”
The investigation revealed multiple examples of systematic efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards and to thwart detection of that noncompliance by federal and state regulators.
For instance, the report says that UBB miners told the MSHA that PCC/ Massey mine personnel on the surface routinely gave them advance notice of federal safety inspections, a violation of federal mining law. “The advance notice allowed PCC/Massey employees to conceal violations from enforcement personnel.” On Oct. 26, PCC’s former chief of security, Hughie E. Stover, was convicted in federal court for lying to MSHA about whether advance notice was a practice at UBB. “His conviction underscores the extent to which practices designed to hide PCC/Massey safety and health violations were engrained at UBB,” the summary says.
The conditions allowed to exist by the mine’s operators at UBB “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,” the report says.
According to the MSHA, PCC/ could have prevented the methane ignition and explosion by maintaining a piece of equipment known as a longwall shearer in safe condition. The investigation found that PCC/Massey operated the shearer with worn bits and missing water sprays, creating an ignition source for methane.
The investigation also blamed Massey/PCC for failing to comply with its roof control plan, which allowed methane dust to accumulate in the mine’s tailgate area.
What began as a small methane explosion in that area was fueled into a larger conflagration by dangerous accumulations of floating coal dust. The report says that that PCC/Massey failed to “rock dust” the mine adequately to mitigate this danger. Underground mines rely on rock dusting — a practice of dusting the mine with crushed limestone — to dilute the explosive nature of coal dust. “The resulting coal dust explosion killed the 29 miners. PCC/Massey records demonstrate that examiners allowed these and other accumulations in the mine to build up over days, weeks and months.”
With the release of accident investigation report, the MSHA issued 369 citations and orders, including 21 flagrant violations, which carry the most serious civil penalties available under the law. As a result, it imposed a fine of $10.8 million, the largest in agency history.
Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith, MSHA Assistant Secretary Joseph A. Main and MSHA Administrator for Coal Kevin Stricklin met with families today to share the agency’s findings. “The tragic explosion at Upper Big Branch left dozens of families without husbands, fathers, brothers and sons,“ Solis said in a statement. “I made a pledge to the families of those we lost, and the entire mining community, to conduct the most complete and thorough investigation possible in order to find the cause of this disaster. The results of the investigation lead to the conclusion that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, and broke the law as they endangered the lives of their miners. By issuing the largest fine in MSHA’s history, I hope to send a strong message that the safety of miners must come first.“
The release of the investigation’s findings came on the same day that Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired Massey Energy in June, agreed to pay $210 million and to make major safety improvements in a settlement on the Upper Big Branch explosion. (See related story at http://www.virginiabusiness.com
To see the complete report on the results of the MSHA investigation, go to http://www.msha.gov/PerformanceCoal/PerformanceCoal.asp
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