As is true with all mining disasters, the one at Upper Big Branch did not end with the April 5, 2010, explosion that took the lives of 29 men. Instead, the blast set in motion a chain of events that has altered the future for the coal industry, government regulators and, most importantly, the families and loved ones who suffered such overwhelming losses.
The changes began late in December 2010 when longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship retired.1
The following month, January 2011, Massey officials announced that the company would be sold to coal giant Alpha Natural Resources. When finalized sometime in 2011, the deal will make Alpha one of the three largest coal companies in the country, an enterprise worth $15 billion2 with more than 110 mines and about five billion tons of reserves.3 Massey Energy will cease to exist as a company.
In late April 2011, as the Alpha deal was nearing completion, The Charleston Gazette reported that Massey Energy officials had scheduled meetings with federal and state mine safety regulators to discuss a plan to seal the Upper Big Branch mine.4
Blankenship attempted to downplay the connections between his retirement, the sale of the company and the Upper Big Branch disaster, telling a television reporter in Charleston, West Virginia, that he just thought it was time to retire. As for the explosion at his company’s mine that killed 29 men, Blankenship said, “I pretty well think I know what happened and what the outcome will be, so I’m not concerned any more about the investigation. I think it’s pretty much behind us.”5
Few would agree that the UBB disaster is history – or that Blankenship’s retirement and the sale of Massey weren’t connected to it. The deal with Alpha was finalized as Massey announced a net loss of $166.6 million in 2010, down from a $104.4 million profit in 2009. The company incurred losses of $70.1 million in the last quarter alone. NPR’s Howard Berkes, who has reported extensively on Massey since the explosion, tied the sale explicitly to the UBB disaster saying “close to 70 percent of last year’s loss, or $115 million, were the results of costs associated with the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 coal miners.”6
In late April 2010, Massey Energy made an offer of a $3 million cash settlement to each victim’s family. In late April 2011, Massey notified families that the offer would expire on June 1 – just before the Alpha purchase is finalized and before MSHA is due to release its report on the disaster. At the time the notification was given, seven families had agreed to settlements with the company. Nine others had filed suit against the company, as did a survivor of the explosion.7
Although Alpha officials indicated they had had no contact with the families, the New York Times reported that the Alpha takeover “could help Massey shed legal burdens arising from a marred safety record” that included the UBB disaster.8
A question that looms over the future of the coalfields is whether the new company will have an improved safety record.
Alpha’s chief executive, Kevin S. Crutchfield, said that he would “draw on his company’s cleaner safety and environmental record to help resolve Massey’s legal issues,” but that it would take time. “I think we’ve established a pretty credible track record with regards to safety and environmental stewardship,” he said. “The goal is to run the combined company in the same manner.”9
That credibility may have taken a hit when Crutchfield announced on April 16, 2011, that he has named Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins to help spearhead the implementation of Alpha’s main safety program, “Running Right,” in partnership with a current Alpha executive.10
“Can’t think of two better individuals to lead this effort,” Crutchfield said of Adkins and the Alpha executive who will share the responsibility with him. Adkins’ history makes him a questionable choice to run a safety program. One need look no further than UBB, where conditions, as described in this report, reflected a mine in which safety standards were swept aside in the rush to produce coal.
Adkins also served as Massey’s chief operating officer when the 2006 conveyor belt fire killed two miners in the company’s Aracoma Coal Company’s Alma #1 mine. An MSHA official who testified during the investigation of the deaths said when the state required inspectors to keep a list of mines that presented the most problems, the Alma Mine #1 was at the top of his list.11 In 2010, Adkins was still chief operating officer when Massey closed its Freedom Mine in Kentucky after MSHA found conditions “so persistent and dangerous” that the mine had “a high risk level for a fatal accident on any given day.”12 Adkins also was Massey’s presence in the UBB Command Center; he was the man who, according to MSHA Command Center notes, told rescuers who were trying to follow safety protocols that they weren’t “playing mine rescue.”
And more than a year after 29 men died in the Upper Big Branch mine, there is strong evidence that Massey has not changed the manner in which it operates its mines. On April 29, 2011, after receiving tips on its hotline, MSHA conducted an impact inspection and found 20 instances of aggravated misconduct at Massey subsidiary Inman Energy’s Randolph coal mine in Boone County, West Virginia. During the safety blitz, the agency issued 20 withdrawal orders and five citations. Eleven orders had to do with violations of the ventilation plan at the mine.
Inspectors found that the company was illegally operating two sets of mining equipment simultaneously and cutting, mining and loading coal from the same section. Combustible materials had accumulated in active workings. The company failed to use ventilation curtains, necessary for proper ventilation to prevent mine explosions. Inspectors found insufficient water pressure on the continuous miner to suppress dust and to prevent sparking and methane ignitions.13
Another question that remains unanswered is whether the contentiousness between the company and federal regulators will continue. Massey CEO Baxter Phillips said in a press briefing on Feb. 2, 2011, that he has “passed down through the organization” that “we would like every conversation to be professional and businesslike” and that he wants to “basically turn down … the tension that appears to exist.”14
But in a conference call with Alpha on January 31, Phillips said he would work with Alpha “to reduce regulatory impediments,”15 a statement that suggests the new company well may continue past campaigns against the agencies that regulate coal, particularly MSHA and the EPA.
Undoubtedly, ongoing investigations will result in criminal and civil penalties against the company and its managers. The first federal criminal indictment came on February 25 when Massey Energy’s chief of security, Hughie Elbert Stover, was formally charged with lying to the FBI and obstructing the criminal investigation.
The indictment charged that Stover directed and trained security guards to give advanced notice of MSHA inspections, a practice that he denied when questioned by federal agents. Stover also is charged with directing the disposal of documents at UBB “with the intent to impede, obstruct and influence” the disaster investigation.16
The United States Congress has had difficulty getting traction for new mine safety legislation. In the 112th Congress (2011-2012), the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act (S. 153) was introduced by Senator Jay Rockefeller on January 25, 2011. Senator Joe Manchin III and two other senators co-sponsored the legislation. A similar bill (H.R. 1579) was introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) on April 15, 2011, with seven co-sponsors, including West Virginia Rep. Nick J. Rahall II. Similar legislation was introduced in the House and Senate of the 111th Congress, but it was not adopted.
As far as the regulatory agencies are concerned, personnel changes will likely take place at MSHA as an internal review of the agency’s performance nears completion. At the conclusion of a similar review following the 2006 Aracoma fire, personnel changes were made in district and field offices. Similar changes can be expected when the UBB internal review is completed.
The Charleston Gazette reported on February 5, 2011, that the Obama Administration has proposed increasing MSHA’s budget by approximately five percent to allow the agency to split its operations in southern West Virginia. The Mount Hope District 4 office directs the inspection of mines throughout southern West Virginia with field offices in Logan, Madison, Mount Carbon, Mount Hope, Pineville, Princeton and Summersville. The increased funding would allow the creation of a new district office in Pineville, which would oversee field offices in Logan and Welch.17
Even if a new district office is opened and officials are replaced, however, the future will not be any different from the past unless the agency makes the kinds of sweeping changes necessary to address the culture of MSHA and its relationship to the industry it regulates.
The West Virginia Office of Miners Health Safety and Training, too, must address internal problems having to do with a revolving-door work force and inadequate resources.
None of the changes that have taken place in industry or government since April 5, 2010, offers much solace for the families of the men who died in the Upper Big Branch mine. The deep personal losses ricochet through communities and families, forever altering lives and futures in ways that can never be adequately measured and are rarely acknowledged as part of the true cost of mining coal.
“You cannot replace a man’s life, what he might have accomplished or the difference he might have made in his children’s lives,” said Geraldine McKnight, widow of Roy “Big Sack” McKnight, who was just 30 years old and the father of two young children when he was killed in the Scotia, Kentucky, mine disaster of March 9, 1976.18
The men who died in the Upper Big Branch Disaster ranged in age from 61 to 20. They included the veterans of the “Old Man” production crew and young men barely out of high school. They were men who served their communities as volunteer firefighters, youth coaches and leaders of churches. A number of them were veterans of the U.S. military. They were loyal friends and dependable neighbors. All were family men – husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, grandsons and grandfathers. They were men like Big Sack McKnight, men whose lives cannot be replaced.
Retired miner Leo Long expressed the sentiments of many family members when he spoke at a Congressional hearing in May 2010 in Beckley, West Virginia. “It just tore us apart, broke our hearts,” the elderly man said of the death of 31-year-old Ronald Lee Maynor, the grandson he had helped rear. “I cry every day and every night. I can’t help it.”
And then he issued the challenge that would help make sense of the seemingly inexplicable losses. “I beg you,” he pleaded with the members of Congress who had traveled to Beckley. “Do something.”19
1 As payment for stepping down, Blankenship received what the national media described as a “Golden Parachute” of benefits worth approximately $12 million that included a free house for life, millions in deferred compensation and a “salary continuation retirement benefit” of $18,241 per month that will continue for ten years.
2 Ken Ward, Jr., “Will Alpha improve safety?” The Charleston Gazette, Feb. 1, 2011
3 New York Times dealbook, This is a longer version of the article that appeared in print, http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/01/20/massey energy is to be sold to alpha natural resources, (acquired February 2, 2011)
4 Ward, Ken, Jr., “Massey Plans to seal UBB Mine,” The Charleston Gazette, April 30, 2011
5 WCHS-TV, December 5, 2010
6 NPR, Howard Berkes, “Massey’s losses continue to mount since W.Va. mine blast,“ Feb. 1, 2011
7 NPR, Howard Berkes, “Massey’s losses continue to mount since W.Va. mine blast,” Feb. 1, 2011
8 New York Times dealbook
, This is a longer version of the article that appeared in print, http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/01/20/massey energy is to be sold to alpha natural resources, (acquired February 2, 2011)
10 Berkes, Howard, “In Merger, Massey Mine Execs Would Get Top Jobs,” April 16, 2011
11 McAteer, J. Davitt and Associates, “The Fire at Aracoma Alma Mine #1,” 2006, p. 53
12 Berkes, Howard, “In Merger, Massey Mine Execs Would Get Top Jobs,” April 16, 2011
13 Coal Tattoo, Ken Ward, Jr., May 3, 2011
14 NPR, Howard Berkes, “Massey’s losses continue to mount since W.Va. mine blast,” Feb. 1, 2011
16 NPR, Howard Berkes, “Security Chief Indicted in Mine Disaster Probe,” Feb. 28, 2011
17 Ward, Ken, Jr., “Obama budget includes new MSHA district,” The Charleston Gazette, February 15, 2011
18 Stern, Gerald M., The Scotia Widows, Random House, 2008, p. 130
19 Porterfield, Mannix, “I beg you, do something,” The (Beckley) Register Herald, May 24, 2010