Massey Practices Responsible for Upper Big Branch Explosion, Report Says

By westvirginia on June 29, 2011
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The map above shows the locations of the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion as they were found by rescuers (courtesy photo)

By Steven Allen Adams

The Mine Safety and Health Administration confirmed Wednesday the key findings in an independent report released last month on the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion: poor ventilation, lack of rock dusting, a small amount of methane, and malfunctioning water sprayers on equipment caused a spark resulting in the worst mine explosion in 40 years, killing 29 miners and injuring two others.

MSHA briefed the public and the press Wednesday Morning at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beaver, W.Va. The hearing took place one year after MSHA started their underground investigation at Performance Coal’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va. The mine was owned by Massey Energy, which was bought by Alpha Natural Resources last month.

Families were given their own briefing by MSHA Tuesday night, but both briefings Tuesday and Wednesday included preliminary information, though MSHA officials said that the bulk of their investigation is over. MSHA is holding back releasing some records until investigation is completed. Also, MSHA is working with the U.S. Department of Justice as they conduct a criminal investigation. Two Massey employees have already been charged with lying to investigators and evidence destruction.

“MSHA’s investigation is ongoing, but nearing completion,” said Joe Main, Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health. “We know that explosions at mines are preventable, and a workplace culture that puts health and safety first will save lives and prevent tragedies. The explosion at Upper Big Branch is no exception to that rule.”

“Your government will do nothing less than a full and thorough investigation into what caused this tragedy,” said Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor, in a pre-recorded statement to the victim’s families. “From the evidence we have gathered to date, this much we already know: the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch was preventable. When basic safety systems are not maintained and regulations are ignored, those responsible must be held accountable.”

According to MSHA’s preliminary investigation, several issues contributed to the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion:

  • Inadequate application of rock dust, a method of spreading crushed limestone to mix with combustible coal dust to prevent explosions.
  • Inadequate control of floating coal dust.
  • Malfunctioning or missing sprayers on the longwall shear. Water sprayers put out a mist meant to prevent sparks and to keep coal dust down. At Upper Big Branch on seven of 48 sprays were working. Others sprayers were malfunctioned because Massey was using unfiltered stream water, allowing sediment to clog the water lines.
  • Massey’s emphasis on production over safety.

MSHA’s preliminary report says the accident was most likely caused by a small amount of methane gas, ignited by the longwall shearer’s worn drill bits. The methane ignition caused a gigantic coal dust explosion, something MSHA says could have been easily prevent with proper ventilation, water sprays on the shearer, and rock dusting. MSHA’s report closely mirrors a report released last month by Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, headed by lead investigator J. Davitt McAteer, the former Clinton-era Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health.

The picture above shows how several of the sprays on the longwall shearer were not working properly, not spraying a fine mist. (Courtesy photo)

The MSHA report also details Massey’s history of placing the production of coal over the safety of their employees. Upper Big Branch upper management would threaten front line managers with termination. One foreman was fired after delaying production for one hour to fix a ventilation problem. Examiners were strongly pressured not to put safety issues in the official books. In fact, officials at Upper Big Branch maintained two books, omitting safety problems from the official examination books, but listing safety issues in the production and maintenance reports.

The above pictures shows two different books: the official examination book on the left, and the production/maintenance book on the right. (Courtesy photo)

Mine workers did not receive adequate training. Security guards would notify the mine office when MSHA inspectors arrived, limiting the ability for inspectors to do a thorough inspection. Despite this, there were more citations issued at the Upper Big Branch Mine than any other mine in the nation.

“The evidence is still be collected and analyzed, but there is very little that we’re lacking,” said MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin. “We think we have the majority. The final report has been drafted; there is a lot work going on with it.”

The full report could be out as soon as September.

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