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Report on Deadly W.Va. Mine Blast Castigates Massey for Safety Lapses

May 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades, 29 trapped miners were killed after an explosion deep inside the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Ray Suarez speaks with NPR's Howard Berkes about a new report on the disaster's causes that criticized the safety practices of mine owner Massey Energy.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the results of a major investigation into last year’s mining disaster in West Virginia.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: For five days in April last year, the community around the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and the rest of the country awaited the fate of 29 trapped miners.

WOMAN: All we can do right now as a community is just come together and pray, because, if you’re from here, we’re all coal mining families.

RAY SUAREZ: A prolonged rescue attempt could only bring two men out alive, after an explosion 1,000 feet inside the mine. Twenty-nine others were killed in what was the worst mining disaster in the U.S. in four decades.

The mine is operated by Massey Energy corporation. In the five years leading up to the disaster, Massey had been cited by the government for more than 1,300 safety violations.

But Massey CEO Don Blankenship claimed he ran a tight ship.

DON BLANKENSHIP, Massey Energy: Massey has probably the safest record, you know, in the last — 18 of the last 20 years, we have been safer than the industry average.

RAY SUAREZ: Early on, officials pointed to bad ventilation and coal dust buildup as key problems.

Congressman Nick Rahall:

REP. NICK RAHALL, D-W. Va.: I have heard stories, in no way confirmed, of unsafe methane and dust buildups.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, the first independent investigative report was released. It heavily criticized Massey’s operation. The report was written by former Federal Mine Safety Chief Davitt McAteer.

J. DAVITT MCATEER: The most profound problem is that basic, fundamental safety precautions and practices were neglected. And those contributed mightily to loss of the lives of these miners.

RAY SUAREZ: The investigation concluded lack of air and poor ventilation was a chronic problem, allowing methane gas to build up where miners worked. It cited a history of violations from both state and national oversight agencies.

J. DAVITT MCATEER: I don’t know how you could have assembled a worse record than they have assembled in the last several years.

RAY SUAREZ: The report found the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration was far too lax in its oversight and said it, “is proof positive that the agency failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners.”

Massey Energy, in a statement today, disputed the findings, contending that a huge and unusual buildup of gases within the mine led to the explosion.

Howard Berkes of NPR has been covering the mine disaster and the investigation for the past year. And he joins us now.

Howard, welcome.

Reading the report doesn’t take any technical expertise. Doesn’t it just basically come down to the straightforward conclusion that basic safety practices were not followed in the mine?

HOWARD BERKES, National Public Radio: Well, that conclusion is not highly technical, but the report does contain an enormous amount of technical information that supports that conclusion.

And there’s a lot in the report about the safety systems that failed at Upper Big Branch, which included the ventilation that’s supposed to sweep away dangerous gases — that wasn’t working properly — the process of neutralizing coal dust in the mine. Coal dust is highly explosive. If you have an ignition of methane, the methane that wasn’t swept away, if you have an ignition of that methane, and then it ignites coal dust, that — that is an accelerant.

And that is what fueled what wasn’t just one explosion, but a series of explosions throughout the mine. There is a lot that is technical in the report. But, fundamentally — you’re right — it was a basic failure to follow the most fundamental safety processes that had been known in coal mining for over 100 years.

RAY SUAREZ: The lead investigator said they talked to a lot of people who worked at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Did miners know there were ventilation problems before the explosion?

HOWARD BERKES: Oh, you know, Ray, the very first week that we were working on this story, a year ago in April of 2010, miners first talked about ventilation. They really talked about the same things that have now been reported and that took a year to investigate. We’re hearing the same things that miners talked about that first week.

They knew it, because they would tell their friends: We have got no air. If you are going to work up on Headgate 22, take your own air, they would say.

And they would complain about not being able to breathe. They would complain about excessive heat, which occurs because there isn’t enough ventilation. This was a well-known problem at that mine.

RAY SUAREZ: The author of the study also noted that there was safety equipment present, but found, what, that it was broken, turned off, not inspected as required?

HOWARD BERKES: There were two major failures with — with safety equipment.

One is with rock dusting machines. And rock dusting is a process by which they take crushed limestone and they spread it out over the coal dust to neutralize its explosiveness. It’s a common thing done in coal mines. Well, the rock dusting machine they used was so old, they couldn’t find any record of it from the manufacturer. And it was poorly maintained. It was constantly clogging.

There were serious problems with that. The crews were poorly trained. So, that was one major problem. The mine was just not rock dusted the way it should to neutralize that coal dust.

And the other issue was that, at the longwall mining machine, the cutting tool, the shearer, has these water sprayers that help keep sparks down. You know, a cutting tool, it is going to hit coal, of course, but it might hit rock as well. Sparks fly. If there is methane in the area, that methane can then ignite. And that’s what started this kind of explosion.

Those water sprayers were not functioning properly. They were clogged. Some were missing. And so there wasn’t a robust spray of water to keep those sparks from igniting the methane, another major safety system failure.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there any conclusion formed about why the company was operating the mine this way? Did the report say Massey decided that production was a higher priority than the safety of the people who worked for them?

HOWARD BERKES: The report does suggest that.

But Davitt McAteer also talks about a safety culture there, in which the company believed in its own mythology that it put safety first. But in actuality the records of violations over the years and the kinds of things that were discovered in this investigation, the kinds of things that miners finally came out and talked publicly about clearly show that there was a much greater interest in production at this mine — that’s really a greater interest in profits — than in the safety of the miners.

If these things were allowed to occur, then obviously, the safety of miners is not utmost. That is what this report concludes.

RAY SUAREZ: For all this identification of numerous and routine violations, where was the state of West Virginia? Where were the federal regulators who were supposed to be finding all these infractions?

HOWARD BERKES: I think that’s one of the key questions.

The McAteer team says that the state didn’t have enough inspectors, doesn’t have the budget to adequately keep track of all the problems in all of the coal mines in West Virginia. They’re underfunded and understaffed.

And the report also suggests that there is not the political will in this state to enforce safety in a rigorous way. And, as for the federal government, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is — is criticized very strongly in this report for failing to pay attention to safety, not only at Upper Big Branch, but more broadly in coal mines across the country.

The agency has failed — as the report points out and as we have reported, it has failed to use the toughest tools at its disposal to keep coal mine companies in line to make sure coal miners are safe. It has started to do that since April 5 of last year, when those 29 coal miners died. But it — but it wasn’t doing that before.

And when you ask the agency why it wasn’t done, they will say: Well, the previous administration didn’t do it. That’s not our fault.

But they — while they still have applied these tools now, they haven’t been applying them in a way that suggests that this is going to be the way they will do business from now on.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Howard Berkes is in Beckley, W. Va.

Howard, thanks for talking with us.

HOWARD BERKES: Oh, great to be with you, Ray.