Presumably at the same time, Mine Safety and Health Administrators were meeting with the widows and surviving family members in Beckley, W.Va. During the mid-afternoon, MSHA held a press conference to discuss its findings.
Not much had changed from earlier reports (See Coal Age, July 2011, p. 30). The agency had officially completed its investigation. It issued 369 citations and orders to Massey Energy’s Performance Coal Co. (See News, p. 8), which operated the UBB coal mine. A methane ignition and coal dust explosion killed 29 miners on April 6, 2010-the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey Energy earlier this year and it took responsibility for the incident and much more. Of that settlement, each of the families directly affected by the tragedy received $1.5 million. MSHA cited a corporate culture that put production before safety as the primary reason for the explosion.
While the loss of one life is one life too many, hopefully the next generation will learn from the UBB coal disaster. What MSHA has said is that the UBB mine was an accident waiting to happen. A lot of people will wonder why these men took that risk. Knowing what I know about coal miners, they were putting food on the table. None of them would likely ever be rich. We should say a prayer for all of them, especially the poor souls that knew they were putting other people’s lives in jeopardy.
If you believe Joe Main and Kevin Stricklin, and I do, they did their best to find the answers that the 29 UBB miners took to their graves. The trail of MSHA citations leading up to the UBB disaster was remarkable. During the press conference, Main and Stricklin took quite a bit of heat. Reporters grilled them as to how they would let a mine get to this point and why they didn’t just shut the mine down. MSHA followed protocol; it believed, at the time, that it had done all it all it could do. During the press conference, they said that in addition to the UBB recovery efforts, they immediately tried to determine where the next possible disaster would occur and stop it. They vowed not to let this happen again. Words the coal industry has heard time and again. Now the industry is seeing the manifestation of that response in the form of heightened inspections.
The good news is that Alpha Natural Resources is leading the way. A certain level of competitive camaraderie exists among mining professionals at leading coal companies when it comes to safety programs. Alpha believes its Running Right program is the best. From the moment the DoJ announcement was made, it was clear that Alpha, which is viewed as a leader in coal mine safety, had a hand in crafting the settlement. Instead of seeing the money disappear into some nebulous government compliance-enforcement strategy, $80 million will be invested in making mine safety improvements at existing mines and $48 million has been committed to a mine safety and health research trust-not just an investment for Alpha’s miners, but for all coal underground miners. Finding positives in a mining tragedy is difficult, but this is certainly a major step in the right direction.