Upper Big Branch Mine disaster
Coordinates: The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster occurred on April 5, 2010 roughly 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 coal dust 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 directly responsible for the blast.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released its final report on December 6, 2011, concluding that flagrant safety violations contributed to the 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 CEO of Massey Energy at the time of the disaster, Don Blankenship, was convicted in 2015 of conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. He was found not guilty of charges of securities fraud and making false statements.
In April 2012, Coal producer Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (ANR) (the then current owner) said it will permanently close its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
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 was operated by the Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. The explosion ignited from an unknown source with high methane levels being a contributing causal factor. Twenty-five men were initially identified as killed. Four days later, 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 were two rescue chambers – ventilated rooms with basic supplies for survival – in the mine. On April 6, 2010, at 2:00 am, 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, eleven bodies had been recovered, while fourteen 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. Joe Manchin, the Governor 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 were 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, Governor Manchin announced that the bodies of the four missing miners had been found, bringing the death toll to 29. The miners had not been able to make it to either of the safety chambers. Conditions were so poor in the mine that rescuers who were inside on the first day of the rescue operation unknowingly walked past the bodies of the four miners. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.
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.
On 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 No. 1 mine. In 2007, a fire broke out at the Aracoma Alma No. 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 states 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. These findings were repeated by miners and their families.
In November 2014 the then CEO, Don Blankenship, was indicted by a federal grand jury on four criminal counts, including conspiracy to violate safety laws, defrauding the federal government, securities fraud and making false statements to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.
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 safety citations the day before the explosion, 600 in the preceding 18 months, and 1,342 in the preceding five years. 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.
According to miners at Massey, many employees knew the Big Branch mine was hazardous; to protect themselves some experienced miners had left in months prior to the explosion. One miner said mine officials "buy off judges and have political connections. They disregard safety rules; they get away with it. And most of all they work you to the bone." Another miner said “When you work for Massey, you give your life to Massey. According to the World Socialist Web Site, many of the mine's infractions prior to the explosion entailed a sharp increase in coal production.
MSHA final report and Dept. of Justice settlement
On 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.
Alpha Natural Resources will pay a MSHA $10.8 million 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.— MSHA News Release 11-1703-NAT
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. Miners stated that they were warned of reprimand or losing their jobs if they took time from work to attend funerals. A former miner asked, "Is a lump of coal that valuable to you that you can’t even give the miners a day off to mourn their friends?" A miner's wife told the World Socialist Web Site, "These are the miners’ brothers; they know them better than their own families, and they can’t even attend their funerals.”
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 Gulf of Mexico.). 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..."
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."
The reverse side of the monument tells the "Story of Coal", a brief summary of the coal industry and its impact on West Virginia and the nation. Also etched on the back is a tribute to all coal miners who have suffered illness, injury or death as a result of working in the coal industry and a tribute to the makeshift gazebo memorial. The names of all twenty-nine miners killed and the two survivors are listed as well. Dedicated in July 2012, the memorial also includes a bronze sculpture and plaque recognizing the local first responders and mine rescue teams from West Virginia and neighboring states that aided in recovery efforts. The bronze sculpture was created by West Virginia native Ross Straight.
Beside the parking area is a gateway to the memorial. Three interpretive signs tell the story of the Upper Big Branch Disaster and serve as an introduction to the events of that day and following week.
The memorial and plaza were designed by Rob Dinsmore of the Chapman Technical Group and built by Pray Construction.
In popular culture
Hip-Hop-Bluegrass fusion group Gangstagrass recorded the song "Big Branch" with Portuguese-born artist Tomasia in their album Lightning on the Strings, Thunder on the Mic, released in 2010. The song is written from the perspective of a woman whose family worked at the Big Branch coal mine for a number of generations, and is generally critical of the coal mining industry.
"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 the guilty plea of a former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch Mine, Gary May, who confessed to conspiring to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration's enforcement efforts.
He added, "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." When the plea was announced, May faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
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- Upper Big Branch Mine disaster — official U.S. MSHA site
- Massey Energy Company Preliminary Report of Investigation — Massey Energy's June 3 report on the explosion
- Montcoal Mine Disaster — The Register-Herald special section
- A Tragic Anniversary: Improving Safety at Dangerous Mines One Year after Upper Big Branch: Hearing of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, United States Senate, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session, March 31, 2011
- Faces of the Mine Online memorial