Upper Big Branch: Ten Years After

By Peter Galuszka

This week is the tenth anniversary of one of the worst coal mine disasters in recent U.S. history. The massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch at Montcoal, W.Va. on the afternoon of April 5, 2010 killed 29 miners, the largest number in 40 years.

The disaster meant the undoing of Massey Energy, a Richmond-based company that had been widely called out for its safety violations and mountain-top removal mining practices.

I wrote a book about the firm and Central Appalachian coal that was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2012. West Virginia University Press bought paperback rights to the book and we published an expanded and updated version in 2016.

Today, I have a remembrance in today’s Washington Post. It will be in print this Sunday on the Local Opinions page in the Metro section.

For many years, Massey Energy and its predecessor firm, A.T. Massey, operated a headquarters in a chunky building in downtown Richmond. The Massey family has been generous with its local donations and has helped such institutions as the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

The Massey family was notorious for breaking labor unions but during the two years it took to research the book, I learned that miners felt the firm listened to them and tried to take care of them.

Then a stocky man with a moustache, Don Blankenship, took over. He became notorious for skimping on safety and micro-managing. He served a year in federal prison for ignoring safety at UBB.

Now, he’s running for president on the Constitutional Party ticket and has a new book out titled “Obama’s Deadliest Coverup.” I just got an E-book copy yesterday and haven’t had time to read it all. But from what have read, it is a rambling apologia that comes up with some striking and predictable arguments such as the massive blast was caused by natural gas and not poor coal dust mitigation practices. His statements contradict what four separate investigations found.

Blankenship, a Republican, tries to make this all sound like a conspiracy headed by President Barack Obama. That’s a bizarre premise since Obama had only been in office for a little more than a year when the blast happened.

For the record and before we get into the “War on Coal” arguments, please keep in mind that much of the coal at UBB was metallurgical coal for steel-making. It was largely exported to Asia, Latin America and Europe. So, it didn’t really have much to do with “Keeping the Lights On” in America, as coal lobbyists would have you believe.

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17 responses to “Upper Big Branch: Ten Years After

  1. Ah, the coal industry.

    It just raises the romantic specter of company housing, company stores,… dying in debt. “Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company sto’.”

    Matawan, thank god those days are gone. Well, unless you’re working in one of America’s many theme parks on a J-1 Student Work Visa.

    Why, even here in the Ol’ Dumbonion, there are theme parks, that shall remain unnamed, that bring them over from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and other countries under contract as workers and lifeguards, pay them peanuts and deduct from those lodging and food expenses, leaving the shells. To get here, they pay (to whom?) sometimes as much a $3000 for the visa and travel.

    Luxurious accommodations, 3 to a room, in a dilapidated motel built in the 1940s, and owned/leased by the theme park. Food served, at a discount to retail prices, in the theme park cafeteria. Company match on FICA? Nope. That saves a bit on the wages too. By the time it’s done, “they owe their souls to the company sto’…”

    I didn’t say “lifeguards,” did I??

  2. I always liked reading Peter’s articles on coal mining and West Virginia. As a Richmond outsider Peter captures the sense of Richmond’s elite that is denied by those elites still living inside Richmond but pervasive outside of “River City”. For example, this gem …

    “At the time, the state of West Virginia was only 13 years old, its voters having seceded from Virginia in 1863, following disputes over slavery, landownership, and service in Confederate forces during the Civil War. Moving there was typical for a Welshman who faced much of the same scorn from those of English ancestry who had settled in the Tidewater area as the Celts who preceded them.”

    Yep, the inbred high society posers of the plantation elite. The damage they’ve done to the Commonwealth of Virginia over the years is incalculable.

  3. The quote came from style weekly. When the book came out, style excerpted my chapter on richmond and the Massey family. It is out of the book

    • I was struck by this phrase: “Moving [to West Virginia] was typical for a Welshman who faced much of the same scorn from those of English ancestry who had settled in the Tidewater area as the Celts who preceded them.”

      I presume you’re referring there to William Evans, Morgan Massey’s Welch ancestor. Do you have any evidence that Evans faced “scorn” from those of English ancestry… either from those who settled in the Tidewater or anywhere else? Or is this your editorial supposition?

  4. In one of life’s strange coincidences, Peter both and I have dug deeply into the Massey family, Don Blankenship, and the history of A.T. Massey Coal (later Massey Energy). My “day” job is writing a family/corporate history of the Massey family. To be sure, the narrative reflects the perspectives of Morgan Massey and the upper-level management executives who worked for him, but I’ve been asking tough (not hostile, but tough) questions in order to the truth of things. I’ve also waded through those four reports on Upper Big Branch that Peter refers to, and I can say that, although no one can say for sure what caused the explosion, Blankenship makes a plausible argument.

    I haven’t read Blankenship’s book either — just got it in the mail yesterday — but I’ve read his blog, which features many of the same revelations as the book. And I can assure you, there was a rush to justice in the aftermath of UBB. Blankenship had made many enemies in West Virginia, and the United Mine Workers of America, and it so happened that former UMWA president Rich Trumka by 2010 was head of the AFL-CIO and very influential in the White House, and it also happened that a former UMWA official was running the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The federal prosecution of Blankenship was a classic case of political payback.

    Blankenship is no saint, and he’s nobody’s idea of a martyr. Indeed, he’s pretty unsympathetic. He brought much of the animosity upon himself through his own ruthless actions. But that doesn’t make him responsible for the explosion. The responsibility, he plausibly argues, is MSHA’s, for it was MSHA that ordered changes to the ventilation plan that allowed the build-up of methane gas to occur.

  5. Peter, have you ever written about/know about the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund ?

  6. Larry, yes i have. Right now, the coal industry hss been trying to block payments. Jim is strongly disagree that the cause if the blast is nor known. That’s the narrative the peopke associated with the Massey firm want you to believe.

    • It’s not just “what people associated with the Massey firm want you to believe.” There is a significant body of facts to back it up. This blog is not the time or place to rehash the material, which gets incredibly technical and would cause peoples’ eyes to glaze over.

  7. interesting:

    ” The Black Lung Benefits Act (BLBA) is a U.S. federal law which provides monthly payments and medical benefits to coal miners totally disabled from pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) arising from employment in or around the nation’s coal mines. The law also provides monthly benefits to a miner’s dependent survivors if pneumoconiosis caused or hastened the miner’s death.

    The Black Lung Benefits Act established a government trust fund to pay for the benefits, financed by an excise tax on coal. Until the end of 2018 the tax was $1.10 per ton for coal from subsurface mines and $0.55 per ton for surface mines, limited to a maximum of 4.4% of the coal’s selling price. Starting January 1, 2019 the rate was reduced to $0.50 per ton for coal from subsurface mines and $0.25 per ton for surface mines, limited to 2% of selling price. Coal produced for export is not taxed.[8] The Trust Fund runs a deficit, financed by borrowing from the treasury. Congress has in the past forgiven portions the debt, which reached a maximum of $10.5 billion in 2008 and stood at $4.3 billion in 2018. With the 2019 cut in excise tax rates, the General Accounting Office estimates the debt will reach $15.4 billion in 2050.”

  8. If you’ve ever dealt with MSHA, they’re some of the most useless bunch you can find. When I was still working as an underground coal foreman, they assigned me a personal violation for an improperly installed electrical installation that I had supposedly signed off on. Said the initials looked like mine. Never mind that I had only signed the books for other areas, and the tracking system clearly showed I had never been near. Federal court dismissed at least.

    If you’ve ever been underground when mining through the gas wells and watched that methane flare and burn off, it brings into clear focus that a lot can go wrong very quickly. If your ventilation or dust control lapses for only a few minutes, you can lose everything. In gassy mines, you can hit the 5% methane necessary to propagate an explosion in a matter of minutes. If a guy going through a curtain 2 breaks out by you leaves it open it could short circuit your ventilation. It’s a dangerous line of work, and requires serious conscientious people to keep it safe.

  9. Did not know that was a part of your life. Definitely a perspective to contribute to BR on several fronts!

    what does: ” when mining through the gas wells” mean? You’re not
    talking about frack gas – but rather pockets of gas in the coal layers?

    • Larry,

      They actually do mine through the underground track frack wells. I’ve actually taken buckets and scooped the sand they pump into the fractures to keep them open out to use in the sanders (for braking) on tracked equipment.

      Peter I have worked both in West Virginia and Virginia, in miner pillar operations as well as miner/longwall operations.

  10. Yes, Atlas that’s a great perspective. where were you a miner?
    Jim b, don’t to argue but the four reports i dealt were clear and conclusive.

  11. Jim, i never said in my book that the massey family dealt with prejudice due to their ethnicity. If i recall they went straight to what is now West Virginia. That said, there is no question that people of Celtic heritage did endure prejudice from the English. Any history if the Appalachians shows that.

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