In W.Va., Blast Leads to Worst U.S. Mining Disaster in Decades

BY newsdesk  April 5, 2010 at 10:08 PM EST

Updated 3:14 a.m. ET Tuesday | At least 25 coal miners were killed and more remained missing after an explosion Monday afternoon at an underground coal mine in southern West Virginia, according to the mine’s owner.

“Massey Energy Company … is confirming twenty-five fatalities at its Upper Big Branch Mine, resulting from a tragic explosion,” the company announced early Tuesday. “Additionally, two miners were transported earlier to hospitals and four miners are still missing at this time. Rescue efforts are currently suspended due to conditions underground. Rescue efforts will resume as soon as conditions allow.”

State and federal emergency and mining safety officials remained at the site of the disaster early Tuesday. The rising death toll from the incident marked the worst American mining disaster since 1984 when 27 people were killed in a mine fire in Orangeville, Utah.

Kevin Stricklin, a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration official, had said officials hoped some of the missing West Virginia miners “survived the initial blast and were able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days. However, rescue teams made it to one of two nearby shelters and it was empty. The gas levels prevented them from reaching the second,” The Associated Press reported:

The death toll had risen from seven earlier in the day to 12 at about midnight. A total of 29 miners were in the area when the blast happened, he said.

“It does not appear that any of the individuals made it to a rescue chamber,” Stricklin said at a news conference. “The situation is dire.”

State mining director Ron Wooten said though the situation does not seem promising to reach the four still missing, rescuers wouldn’t give up.

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis issued this statement early Tuesday:

“As we hear of more heartbreak from Whitesville, our thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends, loved ones, neighbors and coworkers. Twenty-five hardworking men died needlessly in a mine yesterday. I pledge that their deaths will not be in vain.

“The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate this tragedy, and take action. Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood.”

The Upper Big Branch mine employs about 200 miners and last year produced about 1.2 million tons of coal, according to company disclosures filed with MSHA.

The mine is owned by Virginia-based Massey Energy Co. and operated by its subsidiary, Performance Coal Company.

The AP explained the dangers of methane in mining operations and described the operation at Upper Big Branch:

Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining. The colorless, odorless gas is often sold to American consumers to heat homes and cook meals. In mines, giant fans are used to keep methane concentrations below certain levels. In 2006, 12 miners died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. If concentrations are kept between 5 percent and 15 percent, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter.

The sprawling Upper Big Branch, which cannot be seen from the road, has 19 openings and roughly 7-foot ceilings. Inside, it’s criss-crossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and equipment. It is located in one of the state’s more heavily mined areas. Along the main two-lane road lined with emergency vehicles Monday night are several plants where coal is prepared for shipment by train.

The bulk of the coal is removed with machine called a longwall miner that uses a cutting head to move back and forth across the working face somewhat like a 1,000-foot-long deli slicer. Hydraulic roof supports shield the miners and equipment as the machines cut deeper into the mountain, with the roof in the mined-out areas caving in by design after workers move on, according to Massey’s Web site.

“Tonight we mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy,” Massey CEO Don Blankenship said in a statement early Tuesday. “I want to offer my condolences to the miners’ families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch. And I want to thank the rescue teams and the Massey members who continue to work hard on behalf of our miners and their families.”

The mine is a non-union operation, but United Mine Workers of America members also pledged to stand by to help with rescue efforts, UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement.

The explosion comes on the heels of promises by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to to enforce congressionally mandated safety and communications standards, imposed after the Sago Mine disaster.

In seven of the last 10 years, the Upper Big Branch Mine had a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar mining operations, the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette reported.

President Obama offered his condolences to Gov. Joe Manchin and said the ” federal government stands ready to offer whatever assistance is needed in this rescue effort,” the White House Press Office announced.

We’ll have more on the mining disaster on Tuesday’s NewsHour and here on The Rundown.