By Taylor Kuykendall
A series of explosions that ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal just over a year ago, killing 29 miners and shocking the nation, were preventable, a report released Thursday stated.
The Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel led by J. Davitt McAteer, reported its findings during a news conference held in Beckley. The report says the cause of the blast was an initial buildup of methane that was ignited, and then extended by a massive buildup of coal dust.
“The report is, unfortunately, not susceptible to the kind of summaries that the media is interested in,” McAteer told a crowd of reporters. “That is because a great deal went wrong. A great many problems occurred that led to this disaster.”
Plenty of questions were answered by the investigation, but many likely remained, McAteer writes in a letter accompanying the 100-plus page document.
“Our investigation, while thorough, could not be exhaustive,” McAteer warns. “There are still questions which remain, in part, because the force of the explosion destroyed much evidence. Regrettably, some may never be answered. More than a year has passed since the disaster, and we believe it best to submit now to you what we’ve learned and offer concrete suggestions on how to prevent other disasters, rather than extend our inquiry indefinitely.”
McAteer said much of the incident was preventable, but Massey officials had a long history of disregarding safety. Thursday, McAteer said he could not imagine how Massey could “assemble a worse record” of safety than it currently has.
The report is in direct contention with the Richmond-based owners of the mine, Massey Energy. In a statement released regarding the report, the company agrees more safety efforts need to be made industry-wide but stands by its initial explanation of a “massive” methane inundation into the mine.
“We disagree with Mr. McAteer’s conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust,” the statement said. “Again, we believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas. 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.”
Alpha Natural Resources is currently polishing a deal to purchase Massey Energy.
The reason coal dust as fuel for the explosion is of concern to most is the investigator’s belief that the buildup of coal dust resulted from ignoring basic safety procedures at the UBB mine.
Fault was not placed solely on Massey. McAteer also places some of the responsibility on Mine Safety and Health Administration officials.
“At a federal level, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has adequate enforcement authority to address this kind of question,” McAteer said. “They did not apply that enforcement authority in a systematic way to be able to address it.”
He said he does applaud MSHA enforcement actions following April 5, but believes those actions should have been commonplace before the disaster.
McAteer pointed out there were inspectors who worked tirelessly to address the situation but were unsuccessful in getting Massey to comply with the regulations.
He added that there is not an adequate number of state mine inspectors.
The 113-page report provides numerous glimpses into the final moments of the 29 miners on April 5, including the revelation that then men at the longwall likely saw something “ominous and out of the ordinary” just before their “world came to an end.”
“As miners returned to work on April 5, some of them observed that the air was reversed in the mine. Others commented on the lack of airflow in some parts he mine. It was hot in there, miserably hot, one said,” the report states. “A perfect storm was brewing inside the Upper Branch mine — insufficient air, a build-up of methane and enough coal dust to carry an explosion long distances through the mine. All that was needed was a spark. It came just after 3 p.m., as the day shift was completing work and the second shift was entering the mine, resulting in a massive explosion that tore through Upper Big Branch.”
The spark, investigators say, was likely caused by the friction of a shearer cutting into the sandstone top of the longwall. The spark, McAteer said, lit a pocket of natural gas or methane that had likely risen from the floor or migrated from a previously mined area behind the longwall.
Sprayers on the equipment were ineffective in dousing the flame at the point of ignition. According to McAteer’s investigation, they were ineffective because some were clogged or removed.
Coal dust, the authors write, was allowed to accumulate due to a known problem with ventilation at UBB. Problems with the airlock doors that prevented the short-circuiting of air in the mine were also faulty and some had been propped open.
The ventilation system, which McAteer called “ad-hoc,” has been called into question since shortly after the blast.
Ventilation supervisor Joe Mackowiak told investigators that Massey took a “Band-Aid” approach to ventilation issues.
“As an inspector would find issues in the mine, and they would issue violations or citations and orders, the company would react to that with generally a plan change, but you would only see a small component of it, whatever was necessary to abate that condition and move on, and that was done a myriad of times,” Mackowiak said.
According to the report, UBB was cited 64 times in 2009, spread out over each month, for ventilation problems.
Inadequate rock dusting, McAteer said, also contributed to the blast. He said the rock dusting crew at the massive UBB mine was insufficient and was composed of only two part-time employees with inadequate equipment.
“Rock dust is fundamental to preventing mine disasters from spreading,” McAteer said during a news conference Thursday. “ ... It is a fundamental, basic and absolute requirement to inert coal dust, which we all know is a fuel.”
He said the dusting system was not adequate at UBB, and had it been, the explosion would have likely been contained to the longwall. While four men would still have likely suffered injury or death from the methane explosion, the blast would have been better contained, McAteer said.
As an example, McAteer points to a chart that indicated in the month prior to the explosion 561 requests for rock dusting were sought at UBB by Massey pre-shift examiners. Rock dusting was only completed 65 times.
“The crew could do nothing to halt the propagation of the fireball as it ignited coal dust that built up in the Tailgate 1 North area,” McAteer’s team wrote. “As the flame propagated, it formed the shape of a wedge that grew to a massive slug that sped through the mine, up to the roof and down the floor.
The formation of the fireball and subsequent explosions likely took place over the course of several minutes. It’s also likely, McAteer said, the longwall crew had time to witness the fireball forming.
“Evidence revealed that shortly before the initial explosion, the longwall crew had moved away from the shearer,” the report authors wrote. “This unanticipated movement suggests that a member or members of the crew had spotted trouble. In all likelihood, crew members observed the ball of flame at the shearer moving to the tailgate entry, and one of them called out to the shearer operator in the headgate entry, alerting him to problems.”
Tim Blake, one of two survivors of the blast, told investigators he was leaving the mine on a mantrip at the time of the explosion.
“The Boss’s methane detector, it went off,” he told investigators. “We was hollering — some of them was hollering ‘stop the trip’... and my buddy beside of me said, ‘Let’s don our rescuers.’ And that’s what I done. I held my breath, put my rescuer on. And then it was just — nothing but just pure silence and stuff still flying by.”
The report details not only the events leading up to the disaster but also rescue and recovery efforts afterward. The analysis of the efforts at the command center operated by both Massey and MSHA officials was highly critical.
“At Upper Big Branch, many things did not work well,” the report concludes.
The report points to “spotty” note-taking, inadequate records of the events and failure to record communications between the command center and those underground.
When one rescue worker suggested a recorder be attached to the lines, he said he was rejected. The decision, the report states, would have been made either by Chris Adkins of Massey or Bob Hardman of MSHA, who was leading safety efforts at UBB.
Other questions about post-explosion activities include the activity of Massey executives Jason Whitehead and Chris Blanchard, who re-entered the mine shortly after the explosion. Massey says the two were trying to help their men, while some have maintained they could have been tampering with evidence.
Investigators could not determine anything directly from Blanchard or Whitehead as both pleaded the Fifth Amendment and exercised their rights to not testify, as have 15 other Massey employees when called for questioning related to the investigation of the UBB explosion.
The report further probes Massey’s overall safety record and accuses the company of a history of safety violations. “Safety first, productivity second,” may have been Massey’s slogan, but the report states it was nothing more than that.
The conditions at the UBB mine were evidence of a company that had become “deviant” in the treatment of its employees.
“Most objective observers would find it unacceptable for workers to slog through neck-deep water or be subjected to constant tinkering with the ventilation system — their very lifeline in an underground mine,” the authors wrote. “Practices such as these can only exist in a workplace where the deviant has become normal, and evidence suggests that a great number of deviant practices became normalized at the Upper Big Branch mine.”
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