Report: Safety Guidelines Ignored in West Virginia UBB Mine Explosion

“The disaster at Upper Big Branch (UBB) was manmade and could have been prevented had Massey Energy (Massey) followed basic, well-tested and historically proven safety procedures,” according to the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel’s 113 page report.

This finding directly opposes Massey’s consistent assertion that the explosion was caused by a crack in the mine floor that allowed methane or natural gas to seep out.

The report, released online at the same time it was presented privately to families of the victims, is the first of several that are expected. State and federal investigators are pursuing their own investigations, while federal prosecutors conduct a criminal investigation.

At least 45 miners were underground the day the explosion occurred at the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey and operated by Performance Coal Company, located 1000 feet below the mountains along the Coal River in Southern West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners perished and one was seriously injured in what is considered the most deadly coal mining disaster in 40 years.

The report was released after a year of more than 300 interviews, several mine walk-throughs, and review of scores of records and mine plans. This despite 18 corporate officials who refused to cooperate with investigators, choosing to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

It offers disturbing details about the conditions in 2.7 miles of active underground mining where air routinely flowed in the wrong direction, if at all. Men were regularly forced to wade through chest-deep water, and the safety inspector who was supposed to file pre-shift reports on air and methane readings did so for weeks before the blast without even turning on his gas detector.

There was so little fresh air flowing to clear away methane, coal dust and other dangerous gases that the normally chilly underground environment grew hot enough to make men sweat.

The governor’s panel found a number of issues contributed to the April 5, 2010 explosion which could have been prevented.

There was the mine’s ventilation system which did not work adequately allowing explosive gases to build up. Records dating back to 2009 indicate lack of air was a chronic problem and Massey knew it. In the preceding 15 months prior to the disaster, UBB received citations from federal and state inspectors every month but one for rock dust issues.

The day of the blast, two workers noticed the air was different – stagnant. They commented to their foreman, who didn’t respond. He also didn’t conduct the pre-shift examination of the longwall nor give them a multigas detector, required by Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulation.

Three fans ventilated the UBB mine. The panel determined the ignition point of the blast was the tail of the longwall. It is assumed that as the shearer operator cut into the sandstone top of the longwall it created sparks. Those sparks ignited pockets of methane. Typically the water sprays on the shearer could help douse any flames; however, later investigation revealed some sprays were clogged and others were removed.

Highly explosive, coal dust can be rendered inert with the application of rock dust or pulverized lime stone. Some witnesses allege the inadequate rock dusting was directly attributable to the fact the company had only hired part-time workers to spread rock dust and to outdated, poorly maintained equipment.

Evidence suggests the crew closest to the explosion knew what was about to happen, but had little time to react and no way to stop it. At 2:59 p.m., the operator manually disconnected the cutting machine, a two-step process that investigators say shows he knew something serious was happening.

Though a single explosion was reported, it was really a series of several explosions created as compressed air caused the coal dust to become airborne. The air/dust was likened to gunpowder, allowing the blast to be carried in multiple directions.

Of the 29 killed, autopsies showed 19 died of carbon monoxide poisoning and 10 died as a result of injuries due to the explosion.

To make matters worse, company safeguards failed too. Pre-shift and on-shift examinations were either not recorded or corrected.

Water was a problem, especially in the weeks prior to the explosion. Workers testified that the pumps in the mine gummed up frequently and water pooled in the mine, sometimes up to neck deep.

The report provides 11 findings and 52 recommendations, ranging from better monitoring of underground conditions to subjecting companies’ boards of directors to penalties if they fail to make safety a priority.

Though the report found the MSHA failed to use tools at its disposal to ensure the company was compliant with federal laws and that the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training failed to enforce state laws, MSHA director Joe Main told The Associated Press, “The finding is that this was a preventable disaster and that’s something I believed from day one. The mine operator just miserably failed to comply with the law and put into place a number of protections.”

The report echoes what MSHA will say when it briefs the public on June 29 on its findings, said U.S. Department of Labor solicitor Patricia Smith.

Virginia-based Massey did not immediately respond. It is in the process of being acquired by Alpha Natural Resources. Massey executives have declined to be interviewed by investigators.

The mine, about 50 miles south of Charleston, hasn’t operated since the explosion. Massey has proposed sealing the mine, but details still need to be worked out with MSHA.

Vicki Smith, Tim Huber, and Lawrence Messina of the AP contributed to this article.