The U.S. federal government made two major announcements during early December regarding the investigation into the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine disaster. The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) announced it had reached a settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which took responsibility for the UBB mine when it purchased and merged Massey Energy’s assets with its operations earlier this year. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) subsequently released the final report on its investigation.
Alpha agreed to make payments and safety investments totaling $209 million in connection with the criminal investigation of an explosion at the UBB mine located near Montcoal, West Virginia, April 5, 2010. “Today’s agreement represents the largest-ever resolution in a criminal investigation of a mine disaster and will ensure appropriate steps are taken to improve mine safety now and will fund research to enhance mine safety in the future,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “While we continue to investigate individuals associated with this tragedy, this historic agreement—one of the largest payments ever for workplace safety crimes of any type—will help to create safer work environments for miners in West Virginia and across the country.”
As part of a “non-prosecution” agreement, Alpha will invest at least $80 million in mine safety improvements at all of its underground mines, including those formerly owned by Massey. Alpha will also place $48 million in a mine health and safety research trust, to be used to fund academic and non-profit research that will advance efforts to enhance mine safety. In addition, the company will pay restitution of $1.5 million to each of the families of the 29 miners who died at UBB, and to the two individuals who were injured, for a total restitution payment of $46.5 million. Alpha also will pay a total of up to $34.8 million in penalties owed to MSHA, including all penalties that arise from the UBB accident investigation.
Remedial safety measures included in the agreement:
- Installation of digital ventilation monitoring systems in all of its underground;
- A plan to ensure that each of its underground mines meet all legal requirements concerning coal accumulations;
- The use of state-of-the-art equipment to monitor its mines for explosive concentrations of coal dust;
- Purchase next-generation rock dusting equipment (pending MSHA approval);
- Installation of oxygen cascading systems to help miners escape; and
- Building of a state-of-the-art training facility with a full training curriculum to train Alpha miners, which will also be available to other mining companies.
This settlement, according to the DoJ, is the largest-ever resolution in a criminal investigation of a mine disaster. It addresses only the corporate criminal liability of the former Massey, not potential criminal charges for any individual. The criminal investigation of individuals associated with Massey remains ongoing.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) imposed a fine of more than $10.8 million--the largest in agency history—related to the UBB explosion. MSHA’s final report concludes that Massey’s corporate culture was the root cause of the tragedy. MSHA has issued Massey Energy and its subsidiary Performance Coal Co. (PCC) 369 citations and orders, including an unprecedented 21 flagrant violations. “The results of the investigation lead to the conclusion that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, and broke the law as they endangered the lives of their miners,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.
MSHA concluded that the 29 miners died in a massive coal dust explosion that started as a methane ignition. While the investigation found the physical conditions that led to the coal dust explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at UBB, which PCC and Massey disregarded, the report cites unlawful policies and practices implemented by PCC and Massey as the root cause of the explosion—including the intimidation of miners, advance notice of inspections, and two sets of books with hazards recorded in UBB’s internal production and maintenance book but not in the official examination book. The investigation found that the operator promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.
The accident investigation report, along with supplementary documents, is available on the agency’s UBB single source page at www.msha.gov/PerformanceCoal/PerformanceCoal.asp.
Since acquiring Massey, Alpha has cooperated fully with the authorities and has implemented extensive measures to improve health and safety at legacy Massey operations. “We believe the agreements we’ve reached represent the best path forward for everyone,” said Kevin Crutchfield, CEO, Alpha Natural Resources. “We’re particularly pleased that a substantial portion of the settlement is going toward furthering miner safety, which has always been Alpha’s guiding principle.”
The former Massey work force of more than 7,000 people has been trained in Running Right, Alpha’s behavior-based safety process, which builds on transparency and empowering employees to make safety and workplace improvements. Alpha said it has begun a second phase of training specifically targeting those with supervisory responsibilities, focused on two fronts: Running Right leadership and safety compliance.