MSHA Says Corporate Culture Led to Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion, Issues $10 Million Fine

MSHA issued the largest fine in its history – $10,825,368 – against the former Massey Energy Co. in connection to the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. In its Dec. 6 fatal accident investigation report, MSHA attributed the root cause of the disaster to a corporate culture that valued production over safety.

On April 5, 2010, a massive explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine, which was operated by Performance Coal Co., a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., killed 29 miners and injured two others. MSHA has now issued Massey and PCC 369 citations and orders, including an unprecedented 21 flagrant violations, which carry the most serious civil penalties available under the law.

"The results of the investigation lead to the conclusion that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, and broke the law as they endangered the lives of their miners," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "By issuing the largest fine in MSHA's history, I hope to send a strong message that the safety of miners must come first."

MSHA announced its report findings and fines following the $209 million settlement and non-prosecution agreement reached Dec. 6 among the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of West Virginia, the U.S. Department of Justice, Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and Alpha Appalachia Holdings Inc., formerly known as Massey Energy Co.

Production Over People

In its report, MSHA concluded that the 29 miners died in a massive coal dust explosion that started as a methane ignition. While the investigation found the physical conditions that led to the coal dust explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at Upper Big Branch (UBB), which PCC and Massey disregarded, the report cites unlawful policies and practices implemented by PCC and Massey as the root cause of the explosion.

These policies and practices included the intimidation of miners, advance notice of inspections, and two sets of books with hazards recorded in UBB's internal production and maintenance book but not in the official examination book. The investigation also found that the operator promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.

"Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners' lives at risk. Massey management created a culture of fear and intimidation in their miners to hide their reckless practices. [This] report brings to light the tragic consequences of a corporate culture that values production over people," said MSHA Assistant Secretary Joseph A. Main.

MSHA issued PCC and Massey 12 citations and orders deemed contributory to the cause of the accident. Nine of those violations were assessed as flagrant, which carry the highest possible penalties. Violations include illegally providing advance notice to miners of MSHA inspections; failing to properly conduct required examinations; allowing hazardous levels of loose coal, coal dust and float coal dust to accumulate; failing to adequately apply rock dust to the mine; failing to adequately train miners; and failing to comply with approved ventilation plans and approved roof control plans.

MSHA also issued 357 citations and orders to PCC and Massey that did not contribute directly to the explosion, including 11 assessed as flagrant. Additionally, MSHA issued two contributory and two non-contributory violations to David Stanley Consulting LLC for its examiner's failure to properly conduct examinations. These violations carry penalties of $142,684.

The accident investigation report, along with supplementary documents, is available at http://www.msha.gov/PerformanceCoal/PerformanceCoal.asp.

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