«BRIEFING BY DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH ADMINISTRATION ON DISASTER AT MASSEY ENERGY’S UPPER BIG BRANCH MINE-SOUTH Purpose and Scope ...»
BRIEFING BY DEPARTMENT OF LABOR,
MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH ADMINISTRATION
ON DISASTER AT MASSEY ENERGY’S
UPPER BIG BRANCH MINE-SOUTH
Purpose and Scope of Report
This report for the President is presented by the Secretary of Labor and the Assistant
Secretary for Mine Safety and Health. It is a preliminary report that summarizes the facts we believe to be accurate as of today, with the caveat that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has just begun its investigation as to what went wrong at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
The investigation process began once rescue and recovery operations were complete.
MSHA will issue a final report after a thorough and comprehensive review of the physical evidence, mine records and other documents, and statements from miners, management and government inspectors.
Nothing in this preliminary report should be viewed as presupposing the results of MSHA’s investigation, and nothing in this report should be viewed as overruling or conflicting with the statements of fact and conclusions that will be contained in the final report. The final report will be the official view of MSHA as to what went wrong and why.
1 Part 1: Fatal Explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine On Monday, April 5, 2010, there was a catastrophic underground coal mine explosion at Performance Coal Company’s Upper Big Branch Mine-South in Montcoal, West Virginia. Performance Coal Company is a subsidiary of Massey Energy.
Carbon monoxide alarms at the mine were triggered at 3:02 pm, indicating this was the likely time of the explosion that killed 29 miners and put two survivors in the hospital.
Initial reports indicate that the explosion was massive. Some miners in parts of the mine unaffected by the blast reported strong currents of air pushed by the explosion as far as five miles from the most likely explosion site.
The accident investigation team will evaluate all aspects of this accident and identify the cause of the disaster. Based upon the initial reports from the mine rescue teams, the most extensive damage appears to have occurred in and near active working sections of the mine. The rescue teams reported mining equipment severely damaged in these areas.
Every miner working in this area was believed to have been killed instantly.
While the cause of this specific explosion is still Historically, blasts of this being determined, most mine explosions are magnitude have involved caused by the combustion of accumulations of propagation from coal dust. methane, combined with combustible coal dust mixed with air. Methane naturally occurs in coal When methane and coal dus
Explosions in coal mines are preventable. Mine operators use methane drainage and adequate ventilation to minimize methane concentrations. Operators can add sufficient rock dust to counter the explosive potential of coal dust. Operators can eliminate ignition sources, like electrical equipment that shed sparks. Barriers can suppress propagating explosions to mitigate their effects. But while mitigation efforts are laudable, the best approach is to prevent mine explosions from occurring in the first place.
The Aftermath of the Upper Big Branch Explosion: Rescue and Recovery Efforts The explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine occurred at or around the time of a shift change. It killed miners in and around two working sections of the mine. It also killed
Following the explosion but prior to rescue teams arriving, miners already in the mine reportedly proceeded deeper into the mine to search for survivors. They found 2 miners who would survive the explosion, and 7 who did not survive, but determined from carbon monoxide levels that it was unsafe for anyone other than trained rescue teams with oxygen masks to continue further. As such, they withdrew from the mine. Massey would ultimately determine within the first few hours following the explosion that 22 miners were unaccounted for.
At approximately 3:27 pm, MSHA records indicate the company alerted the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the West Virginia Department of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training of the explosion. Immediately, over 20 mine emergency rescue teams from Massey, other coal companies in the region, the state, and MSHA responded to the disaster, with the first rescue teams going underground at approximately 5:30pm. Due to the extensive damage from the explosion, the rescue teams reportedly had to proceed more than a mile on foot to reach the working section.
Within the first 10 hours following the explosion, the rescue teams had found 18 victims in the Upper Big Branch Mine, in addition to the 7 dead and 2 injured miners evacuated by fellow miners immediately following the explosion. Rescue efforts continued in the early morning hours of April 6, but were suspended when rescuers reported encountering heavy smoke, methane, and carbon monoxide. Rescuers started drilling boreholes to clear the air inside the mine before the rescue teams reentered the mine.
Mine rescue teams made additional efforts to enter the mine the early in the morning of Wednesday, April 7, the night of Thursday, April 8, and early in the morning of Friday, April 9. Each time they were forced to exit before the final four miners were found.
Finally, during the evening of April 9, the final four miners were found -- three in the longwall 22 section, and one in the longwall headgate area. A total of 29 miners died as a result of the explosion, and one remains hospitalized.
3 Part II: The Record of Extensive and Serious Safety and Health Violations at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine Federal law places the responsibility for compliance with safety and health standards on mine operators. It also gives individual miners and their representatives specific rights and protections to voice concerns about working conditions at their mines.
MSHA is charged with enforcement of mine safety and health standards. Under the Mine Act, MSHA inspects all underground mines at least four times annually and all surface operations at least twice annually. The Act requires inspectors to cite all violations they observe. MSHA also investigates all fatal accidents and miner complaints of hazardous conditions or discrimination (e.g., retaliation for raising a safety or health complaint).
Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine: Non-Compliance with the Law
The Upper Big Branch Mine-South is an underground bituminous coal mine, controlled by Massey Energy Company and located near the unincorporated town of Montcoal in Raleigh County, WV. The mine employed an average of 195 persons in calendar year 2009 and reported 1,235,462 tons of coal production. Between 1998 and 2003, three miners died in separate accidents at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
In 2006, MSHA inspectors issued an increased number of citations to Upper Big Branch because of a marked spike in the number of violations. Those violations included an alarming increase in the kinds of serious problems that required miners to be removed from portions of the mine. In December 2007, MSHA informed the mine it could be placed into “pattern of violation” status if it did not take steps to reduce its significant and substantial violations. This status would have given MSHA a powerful enforcement tool, enabling it to put the mine under more intensive supervision and order the withdrawal of miners from an area with any significant and substantial (S&S) violation until that violation was fixed. However, the mine then reduced its levels of serious violations in a successful effort to avoid being placed into that status.
4 In what is perhaps the most troubling statistic, in 2009, MSHA issued 48 withdrawal orders at the Upper Big Branch Mine for repeated significant and substantial violations that the mine operator either knew, or should have known, constituted a hazard. Massey failed to address these violations over and over again until a federal mine inspector ordered it done. The mine’s rate for these kinds of violations is nearly 19 times the national rate.
In 2007, MSHA implemented the current version of the “pattern of violation” program to identify the mines with the worst safety records in the country and to place them into an enhanced enforcement regime. The first step of that process is placing mines into a “potential pattern of violation status.” Since the current screening process began in 2007, Massey mines have been placed onto potential pattern of violation status, the first step in the pattern of violation process, 13 times. This number represents 35% of the 53 coal operations sent potential pattern of violation letters. In October 2009, three of the 10 operations that received letters were owned by Massey.
In fact, but for a computer program error, Upper Big Branch would have been placed into potential pattern of violation status in October 2009 due to the number of significant and substantial violations in 2008 and 2009. (The error involved the program that is used to determine whether a mine met the criteria to be included into potential pattern of violation status.) But even if MSHA had discovered the error in time to place this mine on potential pattern of violation status, the current system allows an operation to avoid going into pattern of violation status if the operation reduces its significant and substantial violations by more than 30% within 90 days. Upper Big Branch did this in late 2009, and as a result, they would have avoided pattern of violation status even if the computer programming error were caught. While this computer program error has been fixed, it highlights a problem with the pattern of violation program: ultimately, even if this mine with its troubling safety record were included in the potential pattern of violation status, the current rules make it relatively easy for mines to avoid being placed into pattern of violation status.
Despite the 515 citations and orders issued at Upper Big Branch, three other Massey mines had more citations. In short, this was a mine with a significant history of safety issues, a mine operated by a company with a history of violations, and a mine and company that MSHA was watching closely.
5 Part III: MSHA’s Efforts to Force Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine to Comply with the Law MSHA is required to inspect underground mines at least four times each year, and often inspects mines with a record of violations more often. From 2007 until today, MSHA has steadily increased its enforcement presence at Upper Big Branch Mine. In 2007, MSHA spent 135 days inspecting the mine. By 2009 inspectors were at the mine 180 days.
Even at a mine with a safety record like the Upper Big Branch, MSHA lacks the legal authority to force the mine to permanently close. In specific circumstances MSHA can only temporarily withdraw miners from areas of a mine. Furthermore, MSHA can only stop mining operations in the area of a mine where a hazard exists, and only until the violation that led to the closure has been abated.
There are four circumstances in which the law authorizes MSHA to withdraw miners or
equipment for safety or health violations:
1) MSHA can withdraw miners from a mine, or a section of a mine, if an inspector finds a condition which presents an “imminent danger.” The withdrawal order remains in effect until the hazard is abated.
Since 2000, MSHA has issued five imminent danger orders that terminated at least some mining operations at the Upper Big Branch Mine. The last order was issued in 2009.
2) If MSHA finds a violation, it issues a citation to the mine operator. If that violation is not abated within a prescribed period of time, MSHA can stop mining operations by withdrawing miners from the affected portion of the mine until the operator corrects the condition and MSHA ensures that the hazard no longer exists.
Since 2000, MSHA has issued 17 of these withdrawal orders at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Four of these orders were issued in 2009, and one in 2010.