On April 5, 2010, 29 miners perished in the Montcoal, W.Va., mine, which was run by Massey Energy, following a massive explosion. In response to West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III’s request for an independent investigation into the disaster, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) issued its Upper Big Branch Independent Investigation Report on May 19.
“Ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine lies with the management of Massey Energy,” the report stated. “The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards.”
MSHA Administrator Joseph A. Main said that while his agency’s investigation into the disaster is ongoing, the findings in this report correspond with MSHA’s findings so far.
“GIIP agrees with much of the evidence analyzed by MSHA to date,” Main said. “It reveals that methane was ignited at the tail of the longwall as the longwall shearer – which had faulty water sprays – cut into sandstone in the mine roof, the likely source of the ignition. The ignition then transitioned into a major coal dust explosion.”
In a company statement, however, Massey Energy disputed the report’s suggestion that coal and rock dust played a role in the explosion:
“Again, we believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas,” Massey stated. “Our experts feel confident that coal dust did not play an important role. Our experts continue to study the UBB explosion and our goal is to find answers and technologies that ultimately make mining safer.”
Massey Energy also acknowledged that “the industry needs to examine whether it can achieve better methane monitoring technology … We have been examining where improvements in methane monitoring can be made and we hope to develop some better technologies as a result of our investigation.”
A Cautionary Tale
Main stressed that MSHA needs additional tools and resources to better protect American miners and to prevent another tragedy like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion from occurring.
“We are playing a significant role in making mines safer. Yet, there are mine operators that don't get it,” Main said. “They operate differently when MSHA is not there, and they know MSHA cannot be there all the time. That's why we have called on Congress to provide us with more tools to protect miners. We need to make sure that recalcitrant operators do get it.”
The GIIP report, meanwhile, called the Upper Big Branch explosion “a cautionary tale of hubris.”
“A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking,” the report’s conclusion stated. “The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.”
The report can be accessed at http://www.nttc.edu/ubb either in HTML or as a PDF.