Upper Big Branch Disaster Could Have Been Prevented

MSHA has concluded that mine operator Performance Coal “could and should have” prevented the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that claimed 29 lives on April 5, 2010, coal mine safety and health administrator Kevin Stricklin said yesterday.

Stricklin spoke at a public briefing at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va.

MSHA believes, as its investigators thought earlier, that the explosion started as a small ignition of methane and but was propagated by coal dust. “This is our conclusion,” Stricklin said. “It

MSHA Granted TRO

A hearing was scheduled today in a case where MSHA was granted a temporary order restraining Orland Sand & Gravel Corp. from denying entry to MSHA inspectors from the Vacaville District at the company’s sand and gravel crushing operation in Orland, Calif.

UBB: Hawks Nest Redux

For those who don’t know the history of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, from 1930 to 1935, approximately 3,000 workers carved a 3 mile tunnel through the Gauley Mountain in West Virginia in order to divert the New River for an electrical station at a Union Carbide plant. Ventilation was limited at best. The miners were not given modest protections like masks or breathing equipment. Quartz dust from cutting into the mountain invaded their lungs. Signs of the deadly lung disease, silicosis, began for some within eight weeks of employment. It’s estimated that up to 1,000 miners who worked on the tunnel — or 33% — contracted silicosis, according to a 2008 book, The Hawks Nest Tunnel by Patricia Spangler.

Public health historians learned in their studies that the building of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia was considered one of the worst man-made industrial disease accidents in U.S. history. But as we know, it wasn’t an accident. Workers were placed in harm’s way for profit. Their health be damned.

Fast forward to May 2011.

An independent review panel, appointed by Senator Joe Manchin while he was Governor of West Virginia , reported that 17 of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion on April 5, 2010 had pneumoconiosis or black lung disease. This is according to the autopsy reports from the West Virginia Medical Examiners Office. Four of the other deceased miners were diagnosed by the medical examiner as having “anthracosis,” a term used in lieu of pneumoconiosis to describe the beginnings of the disease. Five of the UBB miners did not have sufficient lung tissue to make a pneumoconiosis determination, according to the report. Three miners did not have black lung.

These are horrific numbers, but it gets worse. Jason Atkins, a roof bolter in the UBB mine with five years of mining experience, was one of the miners diagnosed with the disease. He was only 25 years old.

The current legal limit allowable for quartz in a respirable dust sample is 5%. In other words, the air a miner breathes cannot contain more than 5% quartz. Out of 22 samples from the UBB mine taken from March 2009 – March 2010 and posted on MSHA’s Data Retrieval System, there were only two samples in compliance with the quartz limit. Ten of the samples had quartz levels two or more times the 5% level. One was as high 28.3%. (When respirable dust samples contain more than 5% quartz, the permissible exposure level (PEL) for that mine is reduced to better protect miners’ lungs. Whether mine operators comply consistently with that PEL is a different story.)

The sad fate of these miners and their story is turning into a tragedy that tops any John Grisham novel. Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, Chairman of the Board for Massey Energy before the Alpha merger, and a former deputy director of the CIA , claims there is a conspiracy by the Obama Administration to destroy Massey Energy. Inman claims that the large number of violations against the company is his proof.

There is no conspiracy. The record is clear: 71% of the deceased UBB miners had positive findings of black lung disease. Combine that fact with the company’s noncompliance of ventilation standards. Those men were going to die from working in that mine, one way or another.

No evidence of huge methane inundation at UBB

In MSHA’s publc briefing this morning, Coal Administrator Kevin Stricklin reports there is no evidence to back-up Massey’s claim that a huge methane inundation caused the massive explosion that killed 29 miners on Arpil 5, 2010. While there was floor heaving, the cracks did not extend lower than 18 inches below the floor, and showed no signs of natural gas. In addition, it appears that the company did not implement any suggested changes after previous methane inundations, which occurred in July 2003 and February 2004. Stricklin also said that there was no evidence that MSHA followed up with the company.

Miner Killed at Mine Where MSHA Issued PPOV

Joseph Cassell, 33, was killed in a roof fall at Rhino Eastern’s Eagle No. 1 mine. The mine had been placed on potential pattern of violations status by MSHA for roof control violations on Nov. 19, 2010, and submitted a 3-1/2 page “corrective action plan” to MSHA on Dec. 7, 2010, which included “examining entires and cross cuts to specifically identify roof control issues such as kettle bottoms, damaged or loose bolts, and unstable ribs (page 2, first paragraph).” More in the next issue of Mine Safety and Health News.

Groups Petition to Revoke Massey Corporate Charter

Two groups have started petitions and letter writing campaigns to Delaware State Attorney General Beau Biden calling for the state to revoke the charter of the Massey Energy Corp., former controlling entity of the Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 miners were killed April 5, 2010.

Free Speech for People and Appalachian Voices claim that the recent merger with Alpah Natural Resources “is no reason to avoid accountability expected under the law of Delaware and other states that grant corporate charters…”

The petitions and letters are not clear as to what would be expected if the corporate charter were technically revoked, but they claim that the “action would help ensure that Alpha Natural Resources changes the culture of ‘corporate deviance’ in the corporation with which it has merged.”

Alpha has publicly stated that it is retaining all Massey employees and will ensure that the former Massey employees understand Alpha’s “running right” safety program.

Vol. 18, No. 12

  • Accidents:
    • Kentucky miners trapped by runoff in devastating storm (338)
    • MSHA finds no violations in rib fall injury (339)
    • Bulldozer operator survives rollover in highwall collapse (340)
    • Rock truck driver escapes from overturn (340)
    • Miner hurt while working on jammed crusher (341)
    • Worker loses arm in cement plant incident (341)
    • Miners evacuated from Stillwater Mine (342)
    • No miners hurt in slope car crash (342)
    • Lime plant has second coal bin fire this year (343)
  • Civil Penalties: Judge increases penalties by $112,214 for roof control and ventilation violations (343)
  • Criminal Proceedings:
    • Illinois Grand Jury indicts Knight Hawk employee for fire drill violations (345)
    • Miner gets a year in prison for falsifying examiner credentials (345)
    • Miner gets five years probation, 6 months home confinement (346)
    • Six months confinement ordered for falsifying preshift exams (346)
  • Discrimination: Safety advocate offered economic reinstatement (346)
  • Emergency Standards: Rock dust emergency temporary standard for underground coal now final (346)
  • Equipment Safety: ALJ finds strict interpretation of Part 56 equipment standards offer conflicting results (347)
  • Fatalities:
    • Miner killed in roof fall where operator placed on PPOV status for roof control violations (348)
    • MSHA blames prescription drug in truck driver’s late-night death (348)
  • General News:
    • Groups call for revocation of Massey corporate charter (352)
    • New Zealand rescuers attempt sealing mine with goal of future re-entry where 29 miners remain entombed (352)
    • MSHA’s new District 12 opens in West Virginia (352)
  • On the Move: MSHA’s newly formed Coal District 12 begins operations (353)
  • Private Suits: Massey shareholders can pursue lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court (353)
  • Review Commission and ALJ Decisions (354)

Aracoma Widows File Brief in FTCA Case Against MSHA

Delores Bragg and Freda Hatfield filed a brief today in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in an effort to pursue their Federal Tort Claims Act case against MSHA for the deaths of their husbands in the Aracoma Mine in 2006. The U.S. District Court ruled against the widows, ruling that private persons in “like circumstances” would not be liable under West Virgina state law.

In the Aracoma case, an MSHA investigation into the agency’s own inspection actions found conditions in the mine “deplorable,” and that agency personnel failed to follow established MSHA practices and procedures.

A complete story will be in the next issue of Mine Safety and Health News.