April 4th was the 5th anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, when 29 coal miners were killed in a methane explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine at Montcoal, near Whitesville, WV. J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the Mine Safety & Health Administration during the Clinton years, led the Governor’s Independent Investigation into the disaster. On this anniversary McAteer published an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette warning that not enough has changed in American coal mines to keep another disaster like Upper Big Branch from happening again. In fact, in some places like West Virginia mine safety laws are being gutted. He spoke to WMMT by telephone.
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Brian Williams anchors from New York: Pain at the Pump US Auto Sales Down, Toyota Breaks Records smart fortwo 450 at 5:12 Emissions Standards Lawsuits Bird Flu, Possible Pandemic Looms After the Disaster: Sago Mine Day Without Immigrants New Orleanss Evacuation Plans American Boomers
In this edition of WMMT’s Mountain News & World Report, we commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, when 29 coal miners were killed in a methane explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in April of 2010. We start the show with a special audio remembrance of each miner, using biographical information from the Governor’s Independent Investigation into the disaster.
Then, we hear from the man who headed that investigation 5 years ago, J. Davitt McAteer, who was also head of the Mine Safety & Health Administration during the Clinton years. McAteer recently published an op-ed in the Charleston Gazettewarning that not enough has changed in American coal mines to keep another disaster like Upper Big Branch from happening again, and he spoke to WMMT by telephone. (You can read his op-ed here, or his team’s full report on the disaster here).
Finally, we close the show in a more hopeful vein, with a report from the recent Growing Appalachia conference that brought together a wide range of folks from across southeast Kentucky for a series of workshops & conversations around small-scale farming here in the mountains, energy efficiency, renewables, and more. You can find out more about the conference here.Check out the full story here>>>
The Associated Press | Michelle McKinney hugs Jeannie Sanger, in white, in this file photo from 2010 after an explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in Whitesville, W.Va.
Editorial: It shouldn't be cheaper to pay fines than fix problems
Wednesday May 4, 2016 12:01 AM
The Issue: The chief executive of a coal company that owned a West Virginia mine where 29 men died will spend a year in jail. Our Opinion: The accident and the long trial that followed were a sober reminder of the consequences of ignoring the risks of coal mining and the safety of miners.
It was the deadliest coal mining accident in the United States in 40 years. On April 5, 2010, an explosion tore through the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., killing 29 men. Autopsies showed that most of them had already developed back lung disease.
Six years and a day later, the former chief executive of Massey Energy Company, the owner of the mine at the time, was sentenced to a year in jail for conspiring to violate mine safety standards, a misdemeanor. The jury cleared him of three felony charges that could have landed him in prison for 30 years.
Donald T. Blankenship, the former chief executive, was the most prominent American coal executive ever convicted of a crime related to mining deaths, The New York Times reported.
Scathing and startling reactions to the verdict, which took place long after the men were buried and memorials erected, came quickly.
Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said, "Today's verdict sends a clear message that no mine operator is above the law, that there must be accountability when people lose their lives because of the neglect of their employer."
R. Booth Goodwin II, the United States attorney who prosecuted the case, said, "How is it that this happens, and how is it that we have what seemed like a Third World mine disaster in the 21st century here in America?"
Answers to his questions weave their way through the trial transcript, comments from the judge and the investigations, which uncovered thousands of violations. What became the cause of the explosion, the buildup of flammable coal dust and gas, went unheeded by management even as workers complained.
The New Yorker reported that Chris Blanchard, a former president of Massey subsidiary Performance Coal, which operated the mine, had this to say about the collapse of West Virginia's regulatory might: "It was cheaper to pay the fines than the cost of preventing violations."
Others spoke out after the trial.
Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief, and Beth Spence, a coal mine safety activist who helped investigate the explosion, wrote, "There have been times when courageous lawmakers at both the state and federal level responded to mining disasters with big, bold reforms, sending families the message that their loved ones had not died in vain.
"Sadly, in response to Upper Big Branch, protections of miners have diminished, known safety remedies have been neglected and new technologies aren't being implemented," they added in an op-ed commentary in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Patrick C. McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who was involved in the state's investigation of the deaths at Upper Big Branch, told the Times, "A century of mine disasters and failing to hold coal company executives responsible is over."
We hope he's right. We hope that federal and state lawmakers advance new legislation where appropriate and that regulators enforce laws already on the books to protect the safety of miners.
A study released Thursday has found that black lung disease in coal miners is on the rise in the US after significantly declining since Congress passed tougher mine safety laws!
The findings came after an investigation was ordered by West Virginia governor Joe Manchin to look into the the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades in the state.
75% of the 29 miners that tragically died in in the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia last spring showed signs of black lung!
Davitt McAteer, who headed the investigation, calls the sample "a terrifying number, an astonishing number, particularly given the age of some of these individuals."
With the rising cost of coal, mine operators are being accused of sacrificing safety in favor of profits. Specifically, the investigation pointed at the company behind West Virginia disaster, Massey Energy, saying "the operator's commitment to production comes at the cost of safety."
Not cool! Let's hope coal mining companies get their acts together or the government cracks down on those putting profits ahead of employee safety!
“I’ve been in fires before, not explosions but fires. But we contained them, got them out.”
But looking back at his career, Gordie considers himself one of the lucky ones. A Nova Scotian, he remembers the Westray disaster in 1992 that killed 26 of his fellow miners, men who didn’t make it out. The tragedy was a devastating blow to the community and Gordie was sick to his stomach when he heard the news, “you’re working in the same environment that they worked in. A coal mine’s a coal mine. And it’s an explosion. Bang! And it can happen.”
Why mines explode
During the coal mining process, two by-products are produced; coal dust and methane. The build up of either or both of these substances can be extremely dangerous.
“Any spark could set it off” says Davitt McAteer, a former top mining inspector in the US Mine Safety and Health Administration.
“Methane gas forms at the same time as coal, there can be pockets of methane gas as you mine so that when you’re cutting the coal, the methane gas can pop out and can pop, potentially explode there.”
What makes methane even more dangerous is it is very hard to detect, “Methane is exactly like the gas you get out of your stove” says McAteer, “except that in the stove, they’ve added some smell agent, so you can know when it’s leaking. Methane doesn’t have any smell agent, so it’s a colourless, tasteless, odourless gas.”
WATCH: How coal mines explode
Build up of fine dust particles can also cause an explosion “and those are very powerful and dangerous explosions” says McAteer. Once coal dust is ignited, it can act like tiny firecrackers, igniting a chain reaction that can travel over long distances and spread deep into the mine.
Mining Disasters of the past
McAteer has seen the devastation of mining disasters. As a safety investigator, he’s watched as families waited for their loved ones to be carried out of mines in body bags.
He remembers the Farmington, West Virginia mine disaster where ninety-nine miners were underground at the time; 21 managed to escape, the other seventy-eight all died. He was still in law school at the time but the tragedy had a lasting impact on him. He wanted to know “why this kind of carnage existed” and pursued a career in mine safety.
Then, in 2010, he was tasked with leading the independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. McAteer says dust build up “caused that incredibly powerful explosions to go through that mine, run through two and a half miles of underground workings.”
But the 1992 Westray disaster is what sticks in recent memory for Canadians. The accident revealed how companies could ignore serious safety concerns raised by employees and government inspectors at the time. Bill C-45, often referred to as the “Westray Bill” was created as a result and established legal duties for workplace health and safety. The Bill also made it possible to attribute criminal liability to organizations and corporations for failing to take the appropriate steps to ensure worker safety.
Dealing with the risks
“It can blow up and does. And you must anticipate that it’s going to” and you must plan for it says McAtter.
To deal with the risks mines have ventilation systems designed to dilute and control the build up of explosive methane gas.
Limestone powder, also known as rock dust, is spread through mines to inert coal dust, reducing the chances it will combust.
Dangerous sparks can come from mining machines but the proper selection and maintenance of bits and water sprays are critical in removing potential sources of ignition.
McAteer describes these steps as basic, good mining principals, “It’s clean practices. It’s maintenance” and if you do that, “you can prevent most of these disasters including Westray.”
Preventing another Westray is exactly what Gordie wants to do, and that’s one of the reasons he applied to work at the new Donkin Project coal mine in Cape Breton. “It could’ve happened to us, and that’s why I go back to Donkin mine. Make sure it’s safe. Make sure you go by the safety regulations that you’re supposed to go by. “
“Follow the rules” Gordie warns, because the “consequences are deadly when you’re not playing by the rules.”
Graphic by Babak Najafi
http://globalnews.ca/news/2654172/the-dangers-of-coal-mining/Watch 16×9’s story “The Pit” Saturday Apr. 23, 2016 at 7pm