Alpha praised for efforts on safety
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alpha Natural Resources has made "great strides in addressing the systematic problems it inherited" when it purchased Massey Energy after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Monday.
In a press release, Goodwin praised Alpha's spending on new safety equipment, creation of a safety research trust fund, the start of construction of a new training facility, and "remedial safety maintenance" at former Massey operations.
Alpha has reduced the overall accident rate at former Massey mines by nearly a third and cut the injury rate by nearly one-forth, according to statistics cited by Goodwin's office.
But so far, Goodwin declined to release the actual report that Alpha filed on its progress, complying with a December deal in which prosecutors agreed not to bring corporate criminal charges against Alpha and its former Massey subsidiary, Performance Coal, over the April 2010 explosion.
Alpha has claimed the report contains "confidential and proprietary commercial and financial information" exempt from release under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Justice Department officials have not yet responded to a Gazette FOIA request for the entire report.
On Monday, Goodwin made public only a five-page cover letter in which Alpha lawyer Victor Hou touted the company's safety efforts. Ted Pile, an Alpha spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Alpha executives and coalfield political leaders have said the company's much-promoted "Running Right" safety program would reform practices at the former Massey operations. But a series of problems -- including two deaths in West Virginia this year and a conveyor belt incident that prompted a federal inspection sweep -- have raised new questions about Alpha's success.
"A lot has been accomplished," Goodwin said in an interview. "But there are still pockets of the former Massey operations that need significant improvement."
Information about the Alpha progress report comes more than two years after a massive methane and coal dust explosion rocked the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, killing 29 workers in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Federal, state and independent investigations have blamed widespread safety violations, including a systematic failure by Massey management to comply with rules aimed at controlling the buildup of explosive coal dust underground. Goodwin's office is continuing a criminal investigation of individuals thought to be responsible for the disaster, but agreed in December 2011 not to bring charges against Alpha, which acquired Upper Big Branch, and any liabilities associated with it in a June 2011 buyout of Massey.
As part of the more than $200 million settlement, Alpha agreed to install significant new safety technology, create a trust to fund health and safety research, and take other steps to improve safety practices, especially at the former Massey operations.
Under the settlement, Alpha is required for the next two years to submit progress reports to Goodwin's office every six months on its compliance with the deal. The first such report was due on June 6, and on Monday Goodwin's office for the first time spoke publicly about it.
Among other things, the progress report must contain a "current list of financial expenditures" made in connection with the settlement. Alpha has asked Goodwin's office not to release that expenditures list.
The settlement requires Alpha officials to conduct special "safety compliance visits" at each of its underground mines. Compliance teams are required to provide individual mine management with a report of those visits, and mine management must respond by outlining steps taken to fix any problems. All of those documents must be provided to Goodwin's office, but none of them have been made public.
In Monday's news release, Goodwin especially touted the start of construction of Alpha's new $18 million training facility near Julian. Project plans and an artist's rendering of the facility were posted on a Justice Department website and distributed to the media.
The release also said Alpha has:
* Performed "remedial safety maintenance" at all former Massey mines and "has added maintenance and safety personnel" at those operations;
* Purchased 20 state-of-the-art digital "explosibility meters" to improve Alpha's ability to check underground mines for dangerous buildups of explosive coal dust;
* Prepared to make sometime in June its first purchase of new emergency breathing devices intended to help miners get out of a mine if there's a fire or explosion;
* Hired a mine technology company to develop wireless sensors that can check for potentially explosive methane gas anywhere in a mine;
* Re-engineered ventilation and roof control systems at certain former Massey mines.
"There is still work to be done, as Alpha has acknowledged," Goodwin said in his press release. "But a lot's been accomplished over the past six months, and I look forward to another good report from Alpha."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.