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Methane, Coal Dust Violations Cited at Coal Mine Before Deadly Blast

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The awful disaster last week at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 miners has prompted several in-depth looks at Massey’s overall safety record and the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA’s) enforcement practices. Since 2000, 49 miners have died at Massey properties.

Methane gas is highly explosive when it reaches a certain level. Proper mine ventilation is crucial to keep those levels down. Upper Big Branch is known as a “gassy” mine. Safety experts also say that because the explosion was so powerful, high levels of flammable coal dust—that federal rules say must be kept under control—likely fed the blast.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

Of the 129 federal violations issued to Upper Big Branch since the beginning of the year, 32 have related to dust, ventilation or combustible materials, according to data from the MSHA.

Ken Ward, the Charleston Gazette’s longtime coal reporter, had two great pieces Sunday. First, he details how Massey’s contesting of 16 serious violations—withdrawal orders that require miners be removed from dangerous areas until significant hazards are eliminated—plus a 2007 Bush administration change in policy, prevented MSHA from shutting down the Upper Big Branch Mine last September and putting on a tougher enforcement program.

In the second, he notes that in 2006, after the Sago disaster where 12 miners were killed, the West Virginia congressional delegation proposed some of the toughest reforms ever. The proposals included

tougher mandatory penalties for the violations linked to reckless disregard for safety rules, tighter coal dust limits and more concrete details for adding new emergency response equipment, such as breathing devices and miner tracking gear.

But West Virginia delegation’s bill was watered down to win support from the coal industry and the Bush administration. The bill that passed focused on responding to explosions and fires, rather than on tougher enforcement and accident prevention.

Click here for the full story.

David Moberg at In These Times and John Nichols at The Nation look at safety and fatality statistics of union and nonunion mines and find union miners are more likely to go home alive at the end of a shift. Writes Moberg:

an examination of the incidence of coal mine fatalities since 1995 shows that in every year but one fatal accidents occurred in non-union mines at a rate disproportionate—usually much more disproportionate—to the non-union share of the workforce. In other words, unionized mines were much safer.

Tonight at 7 p.m.-8 p.m. EDT, the nationally syndicated radio show “Building Bridges” will host mine safety experts Tony Oppegard, former general counsel of the Kentucky Department of Mines, and Wes Addington, from the Mine Safety Project of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. They will examine the pattern of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine and how to strengthen the nation’s mine safety laws. Click here to stream from WBAI radio.


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