McAteer: Coal mine disasters not inevitable
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. coal industry needs to adopt more effective dust-control measures and comprehensive monitoring for explosive gases to avoid disasters like the one that killed 29 miners a year ago at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, an independent investigator said Thursday.
Davitt McAteer, a longtime safety advocate who leads an independent team of experts, also said that criminal mine-safety statutes need to be broadened and federal regulators need to abandon closed-door investigations after major accidents.
"Disasters are not an inevitable part of the mining cycle," McAteer said. "We can mine coal safely."
McAteer previewed his team's recommendations during a panel discussion in Charleston at Wheeling Jesuit's 4th-annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium.
Gov. Joe Manchin appointed McAteer to perform the review after the April 5, 2010, explosion. As with similar reviews, following the deaths at the Sago and Aracoma mines in 2006, McAteer's team is taking a broad look at the mine operator and at government regulators.
McAteer said his team would release its report within a few weeks, outlining its conclusions about the causes of the Upper Big Branch disaster and urging reforms in the way mines are operated, rescue efforts performed and accidents investigated.
"There are not pre-ordained numbers of miners who have to perish to produce the nation's energy," he said. "The fate of these miners is not in the hands of God, but in the hands of the mining community."
McAteer has previously generally agreed with preliminary conclusions from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about the overall cause of the disaster. MSHA investigators believe the explosion involved the ignition of a small amount of methane gas, and that blast was made far worse by a buildup underground of highly explosive coal dust.
Among the recommendations McAteer outlined Thursday:
| Congress should pass legislation making it a felony for anyone to "subvert the inspection system" by warning workers or mine management that government inspectors are on their way to a mine or headed underground.
"Why do you think the State Police don't announce where they're going to place their cars on the highway?" McAteer said. "They want to catch us in our normal conduct. They want to see what we would do."
| Federal and state authorities should require more comprehensive application by coal operators of crushed limestone, or "rock dust," in underground mines, using mechanical application methods, to prevent small ignitions from turning into major explosions.
"It is not an expensive fix and it is not a difficult fix," McAteer said. "It is a time-consuming fix, and it is a pain in the neck to fix if you have to do it day in and day out."
| Regulators should require operators to use "passive barriers," such as bags or boxes of rock dust or water, which have been shown effective in other countries at preventing the spread of explosions when the barriers are hung from the roof of underground tunnels.
| MSHA should be forced to conduct more-open investigations of major accidents, instead of interviewing witnesses behind closed doors as the agency has been doing for months on Upper Big Branch. McAteer noted that federal officials have held open public hearings -- broadcast on the Internet -- of the BP oil disaster, and said those proceedings have not interfered with an ongoing criminal investigation of that incident.
"We need to have full exposure to the public," McAteer said. "We in the mining community resist that. We need to have public hearings and public investigations. And yes, we need to have the media there, looking down our throats and saying, 'Have you done this right? Have you done that right?'"
| The industry should institute continuous monitoring of methane gas and begin more comprehensive and real-time sampling for coal dust, allowing operators and regulators to have more up-to-date information to react when problems first arise.
In an interview, McAteer said the unsafe accumulation of coal dust -- which stretched for miles in Upper Big Branch's tunnels -- was caused by the mine operator's failure to maintain safe conditions and by state and federal inspectors who allowed the problem to persist.
"It did not happen overnight," McAteer said.
He said his team also has discovered that changes in the mine's ventilation system were made in the weeks and days prior to the blast. He said his investigators are still trying to understand what changes were made, whether they all received proper approvals and what role those changes might have played in the explosion.
"We're looking at that question," McAteer said.
McAteer disputed a description made earlier this week by Massey board Chairman Bobby Inman, who told The Wall Street Journal the mine explosion was a "natural disaster."
"It's not our conclusion that it was a natural disaster, in my understanding of that term," McAteer said. "It was a disaster that was preventable, that had human causes."
Massey officials declined to have a representative speak on the panel, but company in-house lawyer Stephanie Ojeda and other Massey officials attended and took notes.
MSHA officials backed out of the session, blaming the potential of a federal-government shutdown by Congress. MSHA has scheduled a public briefing for June 29 to release more information about its investigation.
Bill Tucker, a leader of the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, took part in the panel discussion, but declined to provide any details of his agency's findings to date.
"We're looking at everything," Tucker said. "We're trying to find out what happened."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.