An independent investigation has concluded that Massey Energy, a coal mining company recently purchased by Alpha Natural Resources, was guilty of ignoring safety regulations in a way that set the stage for a disastrous explosion in a West Virginia underground coal mine last year. According to the investigation, which was led by a former head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and commissioned by the former governor of West Virginia, Massey failed to observe basic safety procedures so that the eventual occurrence of a deadly mining explosion was almost inevitable.
When an explosion did occur in Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in April of last year, it left 29 coal miners dead and sent shock waves through mining families in West Virginia and other states. According to the new report, the accident was preventable and either would not have happened or would have been much less serious had basic safety guidelines been followed.
“The explosion was the result of failures of basic safety systems identified and codified to protect the lives of miners,” says the report. Among other safety violations, Massey allowed combustible coal dust and methane gas to build up inside the Upper Big Branch mine.
Eventually a spark from a piece of mining equipment ignited the highly flammable material and caused a blast that enveloped a large area of the underground mine. Water sprayers meant to minimize the damage from such explosions were apparently broken and had been left unfixed. But what may be even more disturbing is the increasing evidence that conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine were not unique. Rather they seem to be typical of mines formerly owned by Massey Energy, which will now be passed on to Alpha Natural Resources.
The new report, which is the first independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster completed since the explosion, chronicles how miners working for Massey have been prevented from voicing their concerns about safety conditions by the fear that they would be fired. By cutting corners when it came to safety, Massey was able to minimize costs in a way that led to increased profits but put the lives of miners at risk. This profit-at-any-cost culture set the stage for the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Still, Massey Energy is not solely to blame for the tragedy in the Upper Big Branch mine. The report notes that agencies charged with enforcing mine safety regulations did an insufficient job holding Massey to the letter of the law. This made it relatively easy for the company to ignore safety guidelines meant to keep miners from harm. Under these conditions Massey developed a culture of “normalization of deviance,” in which ignoring safety laws that increase mining costs became the accepted norm. The report also notes safety practices at Massey have changed little since last year’s disaster.
Massey has repeatedly denied it is responsible for the deadly explosion, claiming the Upper Big Branch disaster was an unforeseeable accident. However negative publicity in the aftermath of the explosion took its toll on the company, and was credited with prompting CEO Don Blankenship’s retirement last year. In January of this year Alpha Natural Resources announced it was buying out Massey Energy for $8.5 billion. This means that now, just over a year since the Upper Big Branch explosion, Massey Energy as an independent entity no longer exists.
However the Massey buyout isn’t a guarantee of improved safety conditions for workers. Soon after the buyout was announced, the Charleston Gazette reported Alpha Natural Resources also has a long history of safety violations. In 2007 the roof collapsed in a mine owned by an Alpha subsidiary, killing two miners. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration accused the company of ignoring safety regulations that might have prevented the accident, and fined the Alpha subsidiary $80,000.
This suggests a culture of routine safety violations is not unique to Massey Energy alone, but is a much deeper problem in the coal mining industry at large. When a spark in Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine set off the blast that killed 29 workers, it was a particularly extreme example of the safety violations that have characterized the practices of US coal mining companies for years.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/pawlowski/3648475544/sizes/m/in/photostream/