MSHA chief Joe Main welcomed the report, saying that "Massey knew they were having serious compliance problems and failed to effectively fix them."

Massey Disputes Critical State Report

The company greeted Davitt McAteer's report blaming it for the Upper Big Branch mine disaster by saying a "massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas" caused the April 2010 explosion.

The battle grew more heated May 19 over culpability, if any is found, for the deaths of 29 miners in the April 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster. Former MSHA administrator Davitt McAteer's firm completed its report for the state about the explosion and squarely blamed Massey Energy, which owns the mine. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and current MSHA chief Joe Main praised the findings, but Massey said it disagrees. "We agree with Mr. McAteer that the industry needs to examine whether it can achieve better methane monitoring technology," the company's statement said. "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. 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. We disagree with Mr. McAteer's conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust. 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."

The report says the explosion occurred "because of failures of three basic safety practices: a properly functioning ventilation system; adherence to federal and state rock dusting standards; and proper maintenance of safety features on mine machinery. Although many standards have been adopted to safeguard the lives of miners, these basic systems should be the primary concern of operators and enforcement officials," it adds.

Main's statement said the findings of the Governor's Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) agree with what MSHA has found so far. "GIIP agrees with much of the evidence analyzed by MSHA to date," he said. "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 they were 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.' And 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. Massey also hid violations from government enforcement agencies, such as through advance notice of inspections, which is prohibited under the Mine Act. We are playing a significant role in making 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. While our own investigation is ongoing, it is fair to say that MSHA is in agreement with many of the GIIP findings. Their report echoes many of findings that MSHA has been sharing with victims' families and the public."

Gov. Tomblin promised regulatory and statutory changes to improve mine safety in his state and noted that state legislators passed a $750,000 budget increase so the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety & Training can give all of its inspectors a $5,004 pay raise. "This will aid in recruitment and retention of qualified inspectors," Tomblin said in his own statement. "We have recently hired new inspectors to focus on making sure that mines are properly rock dusted. Those inspectors are currently in training. The OMHS&T’s lab for rock dust analysis is in place and is expected to begin operating around July 1 of this year, once training has been completed. For the first time in the history of our State, the OMHS&T will undertake a scientific analysis of the rock dust present in mines. It is my hope this action will further improve mining safety. Furthermore, the OMHS&T has already shifted resources to provide additional inspector time for larger mines, like the one at UBB. Our inspectors are now working more frequently on the weekends, allowing for inspections, as the Report suggests, at any hour and on any day."

The McAteer report asserts that Massey "broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards. The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking. The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology."

The report contains 11 recommendations, including adopting provisions similar to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to make mining companies' boards of directors accountable for safety compliance and also adding "black box" technology for mining equipment such as continuous miners and conveyors. Operators must be required to use real-time, continuous monitoring for methane gas and respirable dust in coal mines, it says.

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  • OHS Magazine Digital Edition - June 2021

    June 2021


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