We Remember: One Year After Upper Big Branch Explosion

April 5, 2011
Within days of each other, two landmark workplace safety tragedies were commemorated: March 25 marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, in which 146 garment workers died, and April 5 marks the one-year anniversary of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, in which 29 miners died.

The Big Branch explosion, which is the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in 40 years, continues to echo in the hills of West Virginia and the halls of Congress.

On Jan 26, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and others reintroduced the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act. Rockefeller plans to speak at a memorial service in Whitesville, W.Va., where he will honor not only the miners who lost their lives, but the first responders and mine rescue teams that tried to save them.

“Our wounds from that tragedy are still fresh,” said Rockefeller. “I was there with the families as we prayed for 29 husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and grandsons - and it is not something that I will ever forget. “ He spoke of a “continued obligation we have to make sure that miners and their families can expect safe working conditions. In the past year, we have seen important improvements to mine safety laws to better protect our miners, but we have much more to do.”

MSHA Administrator Joseph Main released a statement on April 5 in which he said, in part, “Over the past year, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been fulfilling the commitment President Obama made to honor those miners and their families by ensuring justice is served on their behalf and taking action so that an accident like this never happens again.

“As the anniversary of this tragedy so vividly reminds us, we in the mining community must continue to work tirelessly to ensure that miners go to work and return home safe and healthy to family and friends, every shift of every day,” Main added. “That is the promise we make to miners and their families. That is the mandate of MSHA.”

MSHA plans to hold a public briefing on June 29 to share information gathered during the investigation of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine. The briefing will coincide with the one-year anniversary of the start of the underground investigation at the Upper Big Branch Mine and will be held at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va.

At the meeting, MSHA intends to provide an overview of the physical evidence gathered in its investigation, as well as summaries of other evidence obtained by investigators. As has been the practice throughout the investigation, some information will remain confidential in light of an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice criminal investigation and requests by federal prosecutors to MSHA to limit the public release of evidence relevant to potential prosecutions.

“We take very seriously the need to keep the public informed as to what we're learning and when we’re learning it,” said Main. “We also take seriously the efforts of the FBI and the U.S. attorney to bring to justice those who may have broken the law. Throughout this investigation, we’ve worked hard to balance those important goals.”

In February, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted a security chief from the Big Branch mine for making false statements to federal agents and for obstructing a federal investigation by improperly disposing of documents. In a statement, Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine, said it took the matter very seriously, and, in fact, “notified the U.S. Attorney’s office within hours of learning that documents had been disposed of and took immediate steps to recover documents and turn them over to the U.S. Attorney’s office.”

In an statement on April 4th, Massey Energy said it “continues to extend our sincere condolences and heartfelt sympathies to those families and communities who lost loved ones in this tragic accident,” adding that the company “remains fully committed to a thorough and comprehensive investigation that seeks to identify the primary causes of the explosion and provide answers to the UBB families and the communities we serve in Central Appalachia.”

In honor of the 29 miners who died, Massey Energy will idle production and hold a safety stand down at its 92 underground coal producing sections on April 5. In addition, Massey will conduct a company-wide, 1-minute and 29-second moment of silence at 3:02 pm EST to pay tribute to the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch explosion.

United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts is not moved by Massey Energy’s show of support and concern, pointing out: “It has now been a year since the terrible events at the Upper Big Branch mine occurred, and we still do not have a definitive answer as to exactly what happened nor exactly who was responsible.

“But there are things we do know,” Roberts continued. “We do know that the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, operated the Upper Big Branch and other mines with an attitude bordering on contempt for mine safety and health laws and regulations. We do know that the mine’s head of security has been indicted for lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence.”

Public Citizen, a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy group, commented that despite such events as the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, workers continue to be killed and injured on the job. The group said while there has been a lot of discussion of mine safety in the past year, it does not feel there has been much progress toward making mines safer.

“Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, bears much of the guilt for allowing the safety conditions of the mine to deteriorate so badly and for lobbying against safety reforms in the wake of the disaster, but it is not the only mine operator that disregards the safety of its workers,” said Alex Chasick, policy counsel for Public Citizen's Congress Watch Division.

According to a 2010 study of the safety of mining companies, four companies that operate coal mines in the Appalachian area – Massey, Patriot Coal Corp., Peabody Energy and CONSOL Energy – all received the lowest possible grade for employee safety.

And although the disaster showed the limitations that agencies like MSHA face when they try to cite companies for safety violations – Massey contested 75 percent of its violations in 2009 – the response from many in the coal industry appears to be that less regulation of mine safety is the answer.

Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey at the time of the Upper Big Branch disaster, has been quoted as saying, “The feeling of the industry is that we’re regulated too much and not too little. Tragedies lead to more regulation.”

According to Public Citizen, Congress usually does pass new worker protections after mine disasters. The Washington Post in January published a graphic showing 100 years of mine safety reforms that Congress enacted after mine tragedies. From the establishment of the Bureau of Mining in response to the 1909 fire in Cherry Mine to the enactment of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act after the Sago and Darby Mine explosions in 2005 and 2006, Congress has strived to improve the safety of mines.

This time, however, mine and workplace safety bills have gone nowhere in Congress. The bills addressed shortcomings in MSHA’s enforcement authority and allowed it to respond more quickly to accidents, withdraw miners from unsafe mines and prosecute and collect fines from mine operators with bad safety records.

After the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act was reintroduced in January, Rockefeller noted: “This tragedy and too many other workplace accidents around the country serve as stark reminders of the need to make sure that all workers can return home to their loved ones at the end of the day.”

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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