Alpha Natural Resources has significantly cut its accident and injury rates in the six months since a landmark $210 million settlement that spared the company criminal charges over the 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 workers, federal prosecutors said.
Alpha cut its accident rate by a third and its injury rate by 25 percent at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine and other former Massey Energy Co. operations. It's also broken ground on an $18 million training center that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said will dramatically benefit the industry. When it opens in Julian next June, miners will be able to train for dangerous conditions in a 96,000-square-foot simulation laboratory.
Goodwin said the progress report he and lead prosecutor Steven Ruby received shows Virginia-based Alpha making "pretty substantial progress" as it tries to overhaul the Massey Energy mines it acquired last summer and fix a corporate culture that devalued safety.
"This is like turning a freight liner," Goodwin said. "This is a company that now has 11,000 coal miners, and they can't just turn on a dime. But they got pretty close."
In April 2010, an explosion fueled by methane and coal dust killed 29 men in the southern West Virginia mine. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years, and it led to the retirement of former chief executive Don Blankenship and criminal charges against a former superintendent and security chief.
Ruby said his criminal investigation remains active.
Four reports on the disaster agree on its mechanics: Massey allowed methane and coal dust to accumulate, and worn and broken cutting equipment created the spark that ignited the fuel. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed a mere flare-up to turn into an inferno that ripped through miles of underground tunnels.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause was Massey's "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems, noting managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books--an accurate one for itself, and a fake one for regulators.
They also habitually warned miners underground when an inspector arrived on site, trying to give crews time to make the mine appear safe.
Training to stop those practices is among the many components of the non-prosecution agreement Goodwin's office reached with Alpha in December. It wiped the slate clean of some 370 safety violations related to Upper Big Branch and required Alpha to pay $35 million in fines for violations there and at other Massey mines.
Those fines were paid, and in a five-page letter to prosecutors, Alpha says it's making progress on other required initiatives. Alpha asked prosecutors to refrain from making its full report public, citing concerns about competitive information.
Alpha says it has, among other things:
-done remedial maintenance at all Massey mines and added safety personnel at some;
-purchased digital sensors that can continuously monitor air flow and methane levels;
-created a foundation that will spend $48 million on research and development in mine safety and health;
-and hired a new regulatory compliance director.