Mine Disaster Started With Company Culture

[imgbelt img=minecover.gif]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.


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.