Outcry from UBB findings

MASSEY Energy has disagreed with the first independent findings that coal dust further fuelled the major explosion which claimed 29 lives at the Upper Big Branch longwall mine in West Virginia last year.
Outcry from UBB findings Outcry from UBB findings Outcry from UBB findings Outcry from UBB findings Outcry from UBB findings

Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch.

Blair Price

Last week’s report by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, headed by investigator Davitt McAteer, has resulted in sharp criticism of the mine’s operational practices.

“The tragedy at the Upper Big Branch Mine was entirely preventable, and basic safety practices were not followed by Massey Energy,” assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health Joseph Main said.

He said the major findings of the GIIP report matched up with much of the evidence analysed by the Mine Health and Safety Administration to date.

“It reveals that methane was ignited at the tail of the longwall as the longwall shearer – which had faulty water sprays – cut into sandstone in the mine roof, the likely source of the ignition. The ignition then transitioned into a major coal dust explosion.

The GIIP report found that Massey failed to properly examine the mine to find and fix hazards and violations; control the accumulation of coal dust in the mine by adequately rock dusting; maintain water spray systems on the longwall cutting shearer; submit an effective mine ventilation plan; and comply with approved plans.

“Massey knew it was having serious compliance problems and failed to effectively fix them. However, as the GIIP report points out, Massey did more than fail to act.

“Massey promoted a culture that ‘prized production over safety’ and where ‘wrongdoing became acceptable’. As such, it violated the law and disregarded basic safety practices.

“As part of this culture, the GIIP report found that Massey employed tactics to intimidate miners from speaking out about unsafe conditions. As we heard from congressional testimony of miners last spring, Massey also hid violations from government enforcement agencies, such as through advance notice of inspections, which is prohibited under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

Main said MSHA was playing a significant role to make mines safer.

“Yet, there are mine operators that don’t get it. They operate differently when MSHA is not there, and they know MSHA cannot be there all the time. That’s why we have called on Congress to provide us with more tools to protect miners. We need to make sure that recalcitrant operators do get it.”

United Mine Workers of America international president Cecil E. Roberts was struck by some of the conclusions reached by the independent panel.

Roberts said Massey 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 non-union workplace, was taken to an even greater level at Massey.

In the wake of the report, Roberts said, it would be difficult for anyone to argue against expanding the basic rights for coal miners.

"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."

Responses from Massey and the Acting Governor

Massey is reviewing the GIIP report, but made some observations public.

“We disagree with Mr McAteer’s conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust,” Massey stated.

“Again, we believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas. Our experts feel confident that coal dust did not play an important role. Our experts continue to study the UBB explosion and our goal is to find answers and technologies that ultimately make mining safer.”

However, the company did agree with other findings, especially that the industry needs to examine whether it can achieve better methane monitoring technology.

“At UBB, all methane monitors were functional and yet the mine experienced a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas that was not detected in time to prevent the explosion,” Massey said.

“We have been examining where improvements in methane monitoring can be made and we hope to develop some better technologies as a result of our investigation.

Acting West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin said a review of the GIIP report was underway and along with other reports it will provide the information necessary to develop regulatory changes to improve mine safety in the state.

"We have recently hired new inspectors to focus on making sure that mines are properly rock dusted,” he said. “Those inspectors are currently in training.”