UBB victims' families react to report (w/ video)
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- A team of independent investigators has concluded that a corporate culture at Massey Energy put coal production before safety, prompting a collection of major safety infractions that caused the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
The investigators, led by longtime safety advocate Davitt McAteer, found that Massey's pattern of longstanding and widespread violations, persistent intimidation of workers, and constant battling with regulators "can only be accepted where the deviant has become normal."
McAteer said his team found that Massey ignored well-understood practices -- such as proper ventilation, cleaning up explosive coal dust and maintaining mining equipment -- that can prevent all coal-mine explosions.
"The company ran this mine in a profoundly reckless manner," McAteer said during a closed-door briefing with families of the 29 miners who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion, according to several people who attended.
McAteer and his team focused most of their criticism on Richmond, Va.-based Massey, but also said state and federal regulators are to blame for not conducting adequate inspections or taking tougher enforcement actions to clean up the Upper Big Branch operation.
"The disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine is proof positive that the [federal Mine Safety and Health Administration] failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners," concluded the 126-page report from McAteer's team, formally known as the Governor's Independent Investigation Panel.
The report, commissioned last year by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, repeats some evidence and confirms some theories already made public, in many places citing stories about Upper Big Branch published by the Gazette.
But the report also outlines previously undisclosed oversights by government inspectors and detailed testimony that indicates a key Massey foreman did not perform required mine safety tests the day of the explosion -- and that such behavior by mine management may have been much more widespread.
It also cites autopsy reports that indicated that three-quarters of the Upper Big Branch victims had black lung disease. While unrelated to the disaster, McAteer said, "That is a terrifying number, an astonishing number" that needs further investigation.
Nationally, about 3.2 percent of underground coal miners have black lung. In West Virginia, the rate is 7.6 percent.
The McAteer team's report reveals for the first time two important findings that could explain how the mine's ventilation system failed to prevent explosive levels of methane from accumulating.
First, miners working the day of the blast reported that the flow of fresh air underground was reversed that morning and into the early afternoon, just before the explosion occurred at about 3:01 p.m.
Proper ventilation sweeps methane and coal dust out of the mine. Air going the wrong way could have helped set the stage for the disaster.
Second, investigators learned that pumps deep inside the mine had broken over the Easter weekend before the Monday explosion, allowing water to accumulate in a manner that would block proper airflow through underground tunnels.
McAteer's team concluded that the blast erupted when the longwall machine's shearer cut into a piece of sandstone. The resulting spark, the team believes, ignited a pocket of methane that seeped onto the longwall face from the mined-out area, or gob, behind the mining machine.
Water sprays on the longwall cutting shearer had been disabled or were clogged, meaning the flow was insufficient to extinguish the ignition before it turned into a major explosion.
Making matters worse, McAteer's team found, illegal levels of coal dust that had not been cleaned up provided fuel that sent the blast ricocheting in multiple directions throughout more than two miles of underground tunnels.
"A great deal went wrong and a great many problems occurred that led to this disaster," McAteer said during a press conference. "The most profound of these problems is that the most basic and fundamental safety practices were neglected and were not followed."
In a prepared statement, Massey general counsel Shane Harvey repeated the company's argument that the explosion involved a "massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas" that the company could not anticipate or control.