Mine Disaster Started With Company Culture

The report on the April 2010 mine disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine was just issued. It says a corporate coal culture helped lead to the deaths of 29 coal miners.

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Release of the Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion special investigative report this month was like reopening a wound barely beginning to heal. 

Images of the explosion and events following the tragedy killing 29 miners on April 5, 2010, flooded my mind before I read a word of the official and final report by Davitt McAteer. Little over a year has passed. The most vivid memories for me since the mine exploded are of the Memorial Service I attended on April 25, 2010.

This time, but only in my mind, I relive the events: 

I travel from Summersville, West Virginia, to Beckley where the service was held. The weather is accommodating for the crowds. About half a dozen Westboro Baptist Church members hold hate signs against dead coal miners and West Virginia, occupying a bare spot on a ridge near a stoplight where we turn for parking. 

I board a shuttle for transfer to the Convention Center. The mood of fellow passengers on the bus is somber, reflective and caring. And even though I know none of their names, we’re all family in the Appalachian coalfields.

I am seated in the balcony surrounded by a sea of t-shirts in memory of loved ones. I hardly notice the entrance of President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. All the attention is focused on the families and loved ones of the 29. The President reads the names of each miner who died. The convention center is filled to capacity, but is so quiet you could hear a pin drop as the President calls out each name.  

Midway through, the silence is broken with the voice of a little girl in a pink dress with a pink bow in her hair. She cries, “I want my daddy.”

The Report

For background, coal mines need to be ventilated  — that is, fresh air needs to sweep through the mine, diluting and removing the methane gas and coal dust that come with mining. If ventilation is poor, the gas collects and can then explode. 

McAteer’s report found that the mine was not ventilated properly. The investigative team discovered missing or damaged ventilation controls. Also, airflow in the mine was restricted by high water and roof collapses.

McAteer reported: “As a result, air had to be diverted away from its natural flow pattern into the working sections. Because these sections were located on different sides of the natural flow pattern, multiple diversionary controls had to be constructed, and frequently were in competition with one another.”

In essence, to properly ventilate one working section, miners had to steal air from the others.

A U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Federal (MSHA) inspector, Keith Stone, noticed the direction of the airflow did not match what was indicated on Massey’s maps on his first inspection. That inspection took place in January 2010, three months before the disaster.

Top mine officials Chris Blanchard and Jamie Ferguson were alerted. Mine Superintendent Everett Hager told foreman Terry Moore, “not to worry about it.”

After writing the report, alleging Massey showed “reckless disregard” for worker safety, Stone ordered workers evacuated from an area until the problem was fixed after finding air going in the wrong direction in a conveyor belt tunnel.

MHSA
This is a map of the Upper Big Branch Mine. Fresh air needs to be pulled through a mine so that explosive methane gas is swept out. Mine safety inspectors found ventilation problems at the mine before the explosion.

Writing up Massey and evacuating a problem area was not enough for Keith Stone. He was so concerned about the ventilation problems at Upper Big Branch he went to MSHA’s specialists in Mount Hope.

According to the McAteer report, “(Stone) feared that UBB officials might be engaged in a practice not unheard of in the industry — that of operators manipulating the air during ventilation inspections in order to have plenty of air in the section being inspected at that time. In effect, air is ‘stolen’ from sections that are not being inspected.”

Joe Mackowiak, MSHA district ventilation chief, in response to the alert from Stone, sent out a crew of inspectors to Upper Big Branch Mine in March. After the air flow was checked in all sections of the mine at the same time by the team, it was discovered air was going the wrong way in part of the mine.

Mackowiak told investigators that things got so bad he contacted his old boss, Bill Ross, and asked for his help at Upper Big Branch. Ross had retired from MSHA as top ventilation specialist and had taken a job with Massey. 

Mackowiak said that he explained the problem to Ross, telling him there was low operating air volume the second time and that it was inexcusable. This was a part of the mine where a continuous miner moved coal to make way for a more efficient longwall machine to operate. It was the section where Dean Jones and his crew were working when the blast hit.

Ross reported back to Mackowiak that Chris Blanchard, President of Performance Coal (Upper Big Branch Mine) refused to let him help.

Mackowiak, on Ross’s request, emailed one of the top ranking Massey officials, corporate Vice President Chris Adkins, requesting Ross’s assistance.

“Low air on the headgate section again, despite last week’s shut down,” Mackowiak wrote to Adkins on March 16. “I called Bill Ross and he is on another project right now. I think they could use some help.”

Mackowiak told investigators he never heard back from Adkins.

After a Disaster

I don’t know if calloused or resilient are the right words to describe those of us who grow up in the coalfields. We carry on our daily lives after such tragedies. We cook, pray and care for our communities. Miners continue to cut, load and haul the riches from the mountains, with most of the profits going in the pockets of big coal company owners like Massey Energy, their stockholders and CEOs like Don Blankenship who fail to care and protect their miners.

I learned at an early age that coal mining is dangerous when our young miner neighbor, Johnny Groves, father of six young children was crushed to death. 

Instead of Johnny getting out of the truck at about 4 p.m., on that day a big black car came up the winding, one-lane road and pulled in at Johnny’s house. 

Our parents told us, my brothers and me, not to come down to Johnny’s house, but we did. We waited until dark. The place was full of cars and trucks. Neighbors up and down the road had gathered at Johnny’s house. Someone had walked across the mountain to tell his dad and brother. 

We looked through the windows. Ann, Johnny’s widow, looked like a little limp doll being held up by the women, She heaved and cried. The men, some still in the mining clothes with black faces, raccoon eyes and black hands, stood helpless outside. Johnny, their friend and neighbor, had died in the coal mine.

The miners keeping company at the dead man’s house must have wondered if they would be next. Would the next roof cave-in get him or would he drown in water up to his neck or what about an explosion caused from coal dust and how would his wife and children make it without him. 

And even though they love their job and it is one of the few opportunities for employment in the coalfields, I believe many accept death or injury as their fate as a miner.

James Moore, a close friend of my family, got his hand and arm severed above the elbow in the mines. He continued to work to support his family but he always had half a shirtsleeve flapping down since there was no arm to cover. His brother, Elza, worked in the mines. Elza’s son and Elza’s father worked in the mines.

Rabbit Groves, a neighbor down the road, limped badly from a mine accident.

I wonder how far have we come in this “corporate” coal culture? How far have we come from the coal camps where miners were paid in scrip that could only be redeemed at the company store? And how far have we come from the days when the miner lost an arm, leg, or could no longer breathe and there was no compensation? What strides have our coal operators and politicians taken to protect and care for our miners and their families?  

Will the Appalachian coalfields forever be known as a  “corporate” coal culture?

Betty Dotson-Lewis is West Virginia writer.

 

 

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