Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster Report Describes Event as "Failure of Basic Coal Mine Safety Practices"

May 19, 2011 – An independent investigation team appointed by former West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has released its report on the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, WV, which killed 29 coal miners. Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy served on the investigation team and challenges the characterization of the disaster as a random event.  “It was a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards,” Monforton said.  “Massey Energy and senior management at UBB operated the mine in a profoundly reckless manner.”

The report highlights three underlying problems contributing to the mine explosion. Massey Energy’s inadequate ventilation system permitted explosive gases to build up.  The company also failed to meet federal and state safety standards for the application of rock dust, which is heavier than coal dust and less combustible. In the Upper Big Branch Mine, large amounts of coal dust suspended in the air provided the fuel that allowed the explosion to spread through the mine quickly.  Finally, water sprays on the mining equipment were not properly maintained, meaning a small ignition could not be quickly extinguished.  The April 5, 2010 blast rocketed through 2 ½ miles of underground workings nearly 1,000 feet beneath the mountains along the Coal River.

In addition to examining the engineering, technical and regulatory factors that contributed to the disaster, the Governor’s independent team assessed the culture and practices of Massey Energy and their effect on worker protections.  The company claimed to have at least 100 rules and equipment enhancements that exceeded regulatory requirements, and an injury rate that was far better than that of its competitors.  The independent team’s investigation called the company’s assertions merely “window dressing” and criticized Massey Energy’s “practice of spinning information.”  At Upper Big Branch alone, investigators found that mine management had understated their injury rate by as much as 37 percent.

“The catastrophic failures at the Upper Big Branch mine,” Monforton said, “can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviance became the norm. Many companies claim to be attentive to workplace health safety, but direct their attention almost exclusively to workers’ practices and behavior.  A genuine commitment to safety means evaluating management decisions  up the chain of command--all the way to the boardroom--about how miners’ work is organized and performed.”

The Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel’s report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster is available here.

J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the Governor’s investigation into the disaster, served as Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health during the Clinton Administration. Monforton worked at the Mine Safety and Health Administration for several years before coming to the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, which is based at the George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services. Monforton also served on the team headed by McAteer that investigated the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster, which killed 12 miners in Buckhannon County, West Virginia.