Reconstructing a disaster

A government report digs deeper into the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion

Reconstructing a disaster
Memorial for the 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in 2010. [Image Credit: Rana X. via Flickr]

It’s not often that I recommend government documents as reading material, but the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s report on the 2010 Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia is an exception.

On April 5, 2010, metal mining equipment created a spark as it hit rock along a passage of the Upper Big Branch mine, then owned by Massey Energy Company. That spark ignited a pocket of methane gas, which ignited a large quantity of highly explosive coal dust. Twenty-nine miners died, two were injured and Massey Energy was engulfed in accusations of negligence and willful concealment of unsafe conditions.

An independent investigation completed last spring bore out these accusations. The federal investigation confirms Massey Energy’s negligence. It also cites 369 violations by Massey, 12 of which directly contributed to the disaster. Alpha Natural Resources, the company that bought Massey earlier this year, made a deal with the United States Justice Department to spend a total of $209 million on fines, safety improvements and restitution of $1.5 million to each of the victims’ families. Eighteen of the 29 miners’ families have already independently sued, according to the Associated Press, so the $1.5 million is only the minimum that each family will receive.

The new report walks its readers through April 5, the day after Easter, at the coal mine. It started out like any other day. The longwall shearer, the machine used to cut the coal out of the wall, had drill bits that were wearing away and missing their tips, but that was normal. Many of the spray nozzles on the shearer — intended to keep the metal bits from making sparks as they hit sandstone — were clogged or missing, but that was also normal.

The methane levels in the mine were supposed to be measured regularly, but no one had done it in the area where the men were working the weeks leading up to the explosion. The mine was inadequately ventilated, and inadequate supports for its ceiling had caused one section to cave in, making a bad ventilation situation worse.

Finally, the mine was filled with highly explosive coal dust. “Many of the accumulations were left from the initial development of this area of the mine, indicating a long-established policy of ignoring basic safety practices,” according to the report.

Coal miners have been dusting mine walls with crushed rock since the 1920s. The dust of inert rocks, mixed with the coal dust, stabilizes it and makes it much more difficult for large-scale explosions to occur. But inadequate supplies, broken equipment and time limits regularly made dusting difficult at the Upper Big Branch mine. A handwritten journal included in the report’s appendices poignantly lists the dusting crew’s difficulties in the weeks leading up to the explosion: “Had no motor to run duster … Nothing dusted,” reads the March 9 entry. Variations on, “Ran out of dust” follow. On March 23, someone wrote, “NO RIDE. No help. No spotter … I’m set up to fail here.”

Eventually these systemic problems came together to cause one shattering explosion. Workers outside the mine describe what they saw and heard: “All the dust started — just a white smoke started pouring out the portals, and it sounded like thunder,” said one. Said a purchasing agent, “… I raised up out of my chair …  I looked out the window and I could just see rock dust and debris blowing out of the portals.”

To tell this story, Mine Safety and Health Administration assembled 115 mine inspectors, geologists, engineers, photographers, videographers, lawyers and others. They interviewed 310 miners and officials, pored through documents and did extensive experiments and surveys within the mine, trying to reconstruct what happened, since many witnesses did not survive. Experiments included releasing smoke and videotaping it to understand how methane would have traveled through the mine, and analyzing the sediment on spray nozzles to understand how they were maintained.

Some hope the report will spur new legislation governing an industry where unsafe conditions are too common. The investigation could also affect practices at the Mine Safety and Health Administration itself, whose inspectors have been accused of doing too little to make sure Massey corrected its safety violations before the disaster. Finally, the settlement leaves room to criminally prosecute individuals involved in the events. The mine’s security director is on trial now, and many victims’ families have called for further indictments.

Viewed one way, the Upper Big Branch disaster seems like an unlucky confluence of events. If only the methane hadn’t leaked from the mine floor. If only the spark created by the metal bit of the longwall shearer as it hit rock had not ignited the methane. If only the coal dust had not ignited as well.

But viewed another way, if only the Massey Energy had properly ventilated the mine. If only they had properly inspected the area for methane, as was required by law, before the disaster occurred — especially considering that the same methane leak had caused previous problems. If only they had maintained their equipment and prevented the hazardous build-up of coal dust.

Especially given that the Mine Health and Safety Administration found 369 violations in total, not just the 12 that directly contributed to the explosion, a disaster at the Upper Big Branch coal mine was bound to happen. It was just a matter of when and how.

Posted in: Environment Blog

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  1. You wrote:
    “The longwall shearer, the machine used to cut the coal out of the wall, had drill bits that were wearing away and missing their tips, but that was normal.”
    It may have been normal at UBB, but in any other safely run mine it is not normal.
    You also wrote:
    “Many of the spray nozzles on the shearer — intended to keep the metal bits from making sparks as they hit sandstone — were clogged or missing, but that was also normal.”
    Again, it may have been normal at UBB, but in any other safely run mine it is not normal. Technology has been available since the 1980’s to prevent these ignitions, but it is more expensive than less safe alternatives.
    In safely run mines, management allows workers to stop the machine and repair sprays and replace bits. A machine inspection for safety is a required procedure at safely run mines.
    Please do not allow your readers the impression that faulty sprays and worn bits are tolerated in anything but the worst managed mining operations.

    Peter Cain, December 10, 2011 at 10:37 pm
  2. Poor maintenance of the longwall shearer seems to have been an ongoing problem on the longwall at the Upper Big Branch Mine. By no means was I trying to suggest that these are standard conditions in general in coal mines. Sorry if I was unclear.

    Kate Yandell, December 11, 2011 at 3:38 pm
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