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Alpha CEO: 'We don't honestly know yet' if UBB was preventable

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The chief executive of Alpha Natural Resources said Tuesday he doesn't know if the April 2010 disaster at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine could have been prevented.

Alpha President Kevin Crutchfield said that, since buying Massey, his company has begun hiring its own experts and will conduct its own examination of the explosion that killed 29 miners.

"At the end of the day, our underlying belief is that all accidents are preventable," Crutchfield said. "I think you have to believe that in order to continue to improve over time and achieve better and better safety results.

"I think, with respect to this mine, we don't honestly know yet," he said, "and until we do, it probably wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment."

Federal mine safety officials have said since the April 5, 2010, disaster that safety procedures to prevent underground mine explosions are well known, and a report last month by independent investigator Davitt McAteer blamed the disaster on Massey's failure to follow those safeguards.

During an appearance on MetroNews "Talkline," Crutchfield was pressed by host Hoppy Kercheval about whether Alpha agreed with a Massey Energy report that blamed the deaths on a "natural disaster." Crutchfield said Alpha runs its safety programs as if all mining accidents are preventable, but he hedged on saying that philosophy is absolutely correct.

"I think there are instances, probably, that are out of our control sometimes, but again, we're going to stick with the underlying belief that all accidents are preventable, until we learn otherwise," Crutchfield said.

"But I think there clearly are some instances that, you know, there are exogenous events that fell out of our control," Crutchfield added.

"But our philosophy is to stick with the belief that all accidents are preventable, and let's put plans in place to be sure we send everybody home safely after every shift."

Crutchfield and other Alpha officials have been trying to distance themselves from Massey's safety record, as well as the way former Massey CEO Don Blankenship did battle with regulators over Massey's mounting safety and environmental problems leading up to Upper Big Branch last April.

However, Alpha has had its own problems, including, most recently, two company workers -- one an Alpha employee and another a contractor -- who pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of faking a foreman's license and lying to government investigators.

Asked about those incidents, Crutchfield said, "I don't, by any means, try to hold us out as being perfect. We make mistakes like everybody else."

Crutchfield said the goal of Alpha's "Running Right" safety program is "to punish the sin, not so much the sinner."

"But we also want to let our folks know that 'Running Right' is not a suggestion," he said. "It's going to be the way we run the company. When we make mistakes, and then look to us to correct them. It's the responsible thing to do."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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