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The Daily Need

The Upper Big Branch explosion: one year later

A wreath and a list of the 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion are placed at the state coal miners' memorial on the first anniversary of the explosion Tuesday, April 5, 2011 in Charleston, W. Va. Photo: AP/Jeff Gentner

On April 5, 2010, a year ago today, the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W. Va., blew up, killing 29 miners in the largest U.S. mining disaster in some 40 years. Need to Know reported on the Upper Big Branch mine explosion last December. Since that report, there have been several developments regarding the investigation into the cause of the explosion; the mine’s parent company, Massey Energy; and the families of the miners who were killed that day.

Don Blankenship announced his retirement as CEO of Massey Energy on December 3, 2010. Blankenship, a powerful and controversial figure in the coal business, walked away with an enviable golden parachute: On the day he left the job, Blankenship received $2 million and is scheduled to receive another $10 million on July 1, 2011. He will also be paid a $5,000-a-month retainer fee, plus expenses, for the next two years.

In late February 2011, the Upper Big Branch’s chief of security, Hughie Elbert Stover, was indicted by the U.S. Attorney in Charleston, W. Va., for obstructing an ongoing federal investigation by making false statements to investigators and by instructing guards at the mine to warn miners about approaching federal mine safety investigators. The indictment also charged Stover with disposing of “thousands of pages of security-related documents” stored in a building near the mine with the intent to hinder the investigation. Stover pleaded not guilty and his trial is scheduled for April 25.

Responding to a question about Stover’s criminal indictment in a Wall Street Journal interview on March 28, 2011, Massey’s new non-executive chairman, retired Adm. Bobby Inman, stated that, “I will not be surprised if there are several additional indictments of individuals. Nothing would lead us to believe Massey itself would be indicted.” In another interview with the Wall Street Journal conducted earlier this week, Inman stated that he believes the Upper Big Branch mine explosion was a “natural disaster” not caused by company failings.

Since the explosion, families of three West Virginia miners who died in the Upper Big Branch blast have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Massey Energy, claiming the company acted with reckless disregard for the safety of the miners killed in the blast.  Massey has already settled seven other wrongful death cases in relation to the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. While details have not been made public, Massey reportedly offered each family a $3 million settlement.

Shortly after the blast, then-Governor Joe Manchin appointed Davitt McAteer, the former head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Clinton, to lead an independent panel investigating the explosion. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, (MSHA) the regulatory agency overseeing the industry, also launched its own investigation. But a year later, no findings have been released regarding the cause of the blast. While its investigation is still ongoing, MSHA announced in a press release that it will present additional relevant evidence to the public on June 29, 2011. When we recently contacted McAteer for an update, he told us that he expects to release his findings within weeks.

In our segment, we reported that between January 2009 and the April 2010 blast, Massey mines had been cited for almost 13,000 violations. The Upper Big Branch mine itself was cited for more than 1,400 violations between 2005 and April 2010. Fast forward to February 2011: Massey mines were issued some 80 citations. In fact, Massey mines in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky accounted for more than half the citations issued nationally during MSHA impact inspections this past February.

The Spike network, recognizing the pathos potential in the Upper Big Branch story, recently introduced a new 10-episode reality series about miners, aptly titled “Coal.” Yet, despite this very real and tragic point of reference (the network has partnered with, an organization that helps the families of the 29 miners who died in the Upper Branch mine blast), the show’s creators have also taken creative license in dramatizing the lives of miners that some might find unsettling. The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan writes of the series, “[I]n spite of its verité techniques, ‘Coal’ has a heavy-handed aesthetic, with horror-movie music and misleading teasers.” Heffernan also notes the show’s decision to portray, “the miners’ bosses as their partners in this venture … The owners’ financial risk is repeatedly likened to the physical risk the miners face.”

For the mining community in Montcoal, W. Va., however, settlements and small-screen dramatizations provide small comfort, especially in the face of ongoing violations at Massey-owned mines and the absence of any concrete information about the cause of the blast.