While the cause of the blast still is unknown, media reports indicated that it may have been caused by a methane gas leak. A buildup of methane following the explosion prevented rescuers from continuing their search for the remaining four miners until the gases could be vented.
“Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families. We are working diligently on rescue efforts and continue to partner with all of the appropriate agencies,” said Massey Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship, who is on site at the mine.
In an April 6 statement, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said the miners “died needlessly.”
“I pledge that their deaths will not be in vain,” Solis said. “The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate this tragedy, and take action. Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood.”
According to Solis, nine rescue teams are on site. MSHA District Manager Robert Hardman leads the rescue efforts, with MSHA Administrator Joe Main and MSHA Coal Mine Safety and Health Administrator Kevin Stricklin also on site.
A History of Violations
The Upper Big Branch mine is operated by Performance Coal Co., a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co. According to the company, Massey Energy is the fourth largest coal company in the United States and the largest in central Appalachia based on produced coal revenue.
In 2006, two workers died in a fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma, W.Va., mine, an incident that led to MSHA hitting the company with a then-record $1.5 million proposed fine for 25 safety violations. The Aracoma fire also was a subject of an internal MSHA 2007 report detailing agency enforcement deficiencies.
According to MSHA records, three fatalities occurred at the Upper Big Branch mine since 1998. A worker was electrocuted in the mine in 2003; a worker was fatally struck by falling rock in 2001; and a worker was fatally struck by falling material in 1998.
MSHA records also indicate that this mine received a total of $897,325 in proposed penalties 2009, of which $168,393 has been paid. Thus far in 2010, the mine has received $188,769 in proposed penalties.
In January, MSHA proposed a total of $136,142 in penalties for the mine’s ventilation plan. According to the regulation 30 CFR 75.370, such a plan “shall be designed to control methane and respirable dust and shall be suitable to the conditions and mining system at the mine.” Massey Energy is contesting these citations.
As of April 6, Massey Energy’s Web site http://www.masseyenergyco.com/ stated that the company had “another record setting year for safety” in 2009, with a non-fatal days lost (NFDL) incident rate of 1.67 compared to the industry average of 2.95 in 2008.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III called the explosion “devastating news.”
“For those families who are still waiting for news on their missing loved ones, I want them to know that we are doing everything possible in cooperation with federal officials and the company to get our miners out as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.
United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts also offered his condolences to the families of the deceased coal miners.
“We are also praying for the safe rescue of those still missing, and for the safety of the courageous mine rescue team members,” Roberts said. “They are putting their lives on the line, entering a highly dangerous mine to bring any survivors to safety.”
Roberts added that while Upper Big Branch is a “nonunion mine,” he has dispatched trained UMWA personnel to the site to offer any assistance they can.
This is the deadliest U.S. mining disaster since 1984, when 27 miners died in the Wilberg Mine owned by Emergy Mining Corp. in Orangeville, Utah.