A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch
A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

By Peter Galuszka

Five years ago this morning, miners near Montcoal, W.Va. clambered into low, truck-like vehicles called “mantrips” for a nearly-hour-long ride to their positions at Upper Big Branch, a coal mine owned by a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy.

Some of the miners were queasy because the mine, known as UBB, was especially gassy, had substantial air ventilation problems and lots of coal dust. Even worse, the chief executive of Massey Energy, Donald L. Blankenship, was known as a hard-charging bean counter who liked to cut corners and maximize profits, investigators say.

As the shift neared its end, a “long wall” machine that rips into coal seams hit a clump of slate. Sparks flew from the badly-maintained long wall device. A jet of methane flame about the size of a basketball flared out. Safety measures, such as streams of waters designed to extinguish such flames, didn’t work. As miners scrambled for their lives, an enormous blast, fed by high levels of coal dust, roared through seven miles of shafts, blowing apart or suffocating 29 miners.

It was the worst disaster in this country in 40 years. Several investigations gave scathing reports of Massey’s lax attitude about mine safety. One report was titled “Industrial Homicide.”

So what’s been done to improve mine safety lives? Not very much.

Federal legislation such as the Robert C. Byrd bill that would give federal regulators subpoena power when probing safety violations has gotten nowhere in Congress.

Worried about slumps in coal production caused by as flood of natural gas from fracking drilling methods, the West Virginia legislature has come up with the “Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act.” You read that right. The bill puts “jobs” first and “safety” second.

As W.Va. Del. Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County puts it: “There’s not anything in this bill that improves safety, nothing. And I can’t believe, after all the fires and explosions we’ve had in this state, recently, we would, and you know what they are; Upper Big Branch, Aracoma, Sego, that we would ever consider rolling back safety protections.”

The Associated Press reports that while mine deaths are down, thanks because of the competition against coal by natural gas. Mine inspections spiked after UBB and accidents, while they still occur, are down.

But, the AP says, the coal dust problem hasn’t been resolved. Massey had been fined continuously for not keeping levels of coal dust low. There was so much coal dust in the mine that autopsies of dead miners (at least the ones that had enough long tissue that could be recovered after the massive blast) all showed evidence of black lung disease, which was supposed to have been rooted out years before by regulatory upgrades.

Coal dust problems are still evident. In January, federal officials found excess methane and coal dust at Mill Branch Coal Corp’s Osaka mine in Wise County, Va. Another mine, Camp Creek in Wayne County, W.Va., had been cited 64 times in the last two years for failing to follow ventilation plans. And, a miner was recently killed at a showcase Virginia mine.

What do these mines have in common? They are owned by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought failing Massey Energy in 2011 for $7 billion. Alpha tried to absorb Massey miners and retrain them in its “Running Right” safety program, but it obviously has lingering problems.

Alpha has been lying off many miners because of the production downturns and lack of demand for both steam and metallurgical coal. After enduring millions of dollars in losses, its stock has trading at a dollar and a penny. Cash short Alpha has had to sell its new headquarters building just off of Interstate 81 in the Bristol area.

Blankenship, meanwhile, is slated to go on trial for criminal charges related to UBB in Beckley W.Va. on April 20. It is the first time a coal chief executive has been so indicted. Blankenship’s lawyers are trying to get a change of venue, claiming that he is so well-known and disliked in southern West Virginia that he can’t get a fair trial. For a time, he won a gag order preventing anyone, including families of the deceased UBB miners, from discussing the trial but it was overturned by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

His trial may be delayed, but it won’t be much of a victory. Alpha Natural Resources, meanwhile, is refusing to pay his legal bills.

Note: Peter A. Galuszka is author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” It was first published by St. Martin’s Press in September 2012 and is now available in paperback from West Virginia University Press.


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5 responses to “The Fifth Anniversary of Upper Big Branch”

  1. larryg Avatar

    another great article – Peter.

    As you know – I am conflicted by the issue.

    companies could just close down mines and people thrown out of work …
    if companies cannot economically mine the coal and protect workers.

    My impression is that mining coal has become uneconomic and more and more companies are getting out… because there is no real way to make mining substantially safer without spending so much money on safety that they cannot sell the coal which is competing against coal from mountain-top blasting and open pits mining.

    I think what the lawsuit will do more than deal with Blankenship’s failings is tell other companies that they too might be brought up on charges if there is a mine accident – and they’re just going to get out and may more people will be out of work and relying on welfare and food stamps.

    I’m NOT advocating that safety standards be relaxed – just pointing out that no matter what path is taken – it won’t benefit West Virginians who have minimal options for employment…

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Well, my father always said West Virginia was a great place to be from. But after WWII he never went back….(and he wasn’t actually a native, just moved there in his youth.)

    I have not read your book and I should. I’ve always wondered if the problem was the rules were not sufficiently stringent, or not sufficiently enforced. It seems to me the dangers of that operation in particular were obvious to all concerned. Is there reason to worry there was too cozy a relationship between company and regulators, or similar wrong-headed thinking as expressed by Larry?

  3. larryg Avatar

    well you should not misunderstand me. I strongly support the folks in West Va and I have disdain for the companies that essentially prey on them as captives to dangerous jobs.

    I support the United Mine Workers.. and I support the Govt’s mine inspection program as well as the Black Lung program.

    and to watch WVA chopped up and it’s rivers ruined from bad mining practices is sad because WVA folks love their rivers and mountains.

    and maybe I’ll compare and contrast WVA with Pittsylvania County in Va where perhaps many jobs might result from Uranium and Va recognized the dangers and to date has not chosen the jobs.

    You may also remember a company called U.S. Titainium doing business on the banks of the Piney River – which is now a superfund site. Or how about Avtex Fibers on the banks of the Shenandoah – now also a superfund site. And of course Allied Chemical and Kepone on the Appomattox.

    the point is that WVA is not that different from Va in having to make economic deals with the devil except workers in Va did have other options and we eventually closed those plants down – but not without significant and long term damage to the environment.

    So I”ll throw the question back on Steve – was Virginia wrong-headed in their handling of these superfund sites?

    Why did it take the hated Feds to step in to resolve the issues?

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    More people died in the ONE mine disaster we are discussing than in all those other plants/processing operations you mentioned. Combined. Were there any deaths at Allied or U.S. Titanium or Avtex? More people died in that one mine disaster than in all the known commercial nuclear accidents in the last few decades. The two dead at Fukushima were drowned by the wave. Meaningless comparisons, Larry. Coal mining has been a killer from the start. Any compromise on safety or enforcement is inexcusable.

    1. larryg Avatar

      Steve – you have a good point. but we need context and proportionality.

      for instance, how many state troopers and public safety folks have died over the years despite efforts to proteect them?

      Maybe I misunderstood your original point. I was responding to the idea that industry has a pattern of going over the line and causing damage to the environment – as well as injuries and death to workers.

      You say this particular operation is heads and shoulders more dangerous than other similar operations.

      that changes my assessment then.

      if this is an example of a rouge company and CEO then they should stick it to them.

      I have a phrase to add to the discussion – it’s called Molly Maguires.

      read up on it and tell me if you think it has much to do with coal mining in WVA .. or might have…


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