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Mine Disaster Report Signals Safety Agency Failure

For the past 20 months, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has repeatedly blamed Massey Energy for the fatal explosion at its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. On Tuesday, the agency released a 13-pound final report that came to the same conclusion. But buried inside is an indication that the agency also bears direct responsibility for the explosion that killed 29 mineworkers.

The report concludes that the methane gas that triggered the blast leaked from fault zones beneath the mine. "MSHA believes that this is the same fault zone associated with methane inundations at UBB in 2003 and 2004, and a 1997 methane explosion," the report says.

Methane inundations are well-known in the coal seam shared by UBB and other mines in the Coal River Valley. They're dangerous because methane is explosive. So after the 2004 leak, Massey and MSHA regulators met and MSHA recommended eight measures to minimize the threat, according to documents obtained by NPR and the Charleston Gazette.

"We don't know whether those recommendations were followed and were followed up on by the agency," says Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA chief who conducted an independent investigation of the explosion. "What we do know is that there were no special precautions in place at the mine in April when the explosion occurred."

'Significant and Substantial' Negligence

MSHA's final report includes a "significant and substantial" citation for negligence for Massey's failure to respond to the methane leak recommendations, which it says contributed to the deaths of 29 miners.

The report does not note that MSHA itself also failed to respond to the same threat by neglecting to ensure Massey's compliance with the agency's recommendations.

MSHA has a statutory responsibility to protect the health and safety of coal miners and to enforce the law by requiring a mining company to address known hazards.

"We're looking into it to see what we did know and why nothing was done with it," says Kevin Stricklin, the agency's chief of coal mine safety.

An internal MSHA review is under way.

Prior Methane Leaks

In the 1997 incident, Upper Big Branch miner Stanley Stewart witnessed one of these gas leaks and the fireball of methane that resulted.

"When I saw the glow coming from in behind the wall down on the tail, I took off hard as I could toward the head," Stewart recalls. "I thought I was a dead man."

That methane ignition did not grow into something bigger, and Stanley and others escaped unscathed. But on April 5, 2010, a similar methane ignition hit excessive coal dust in the mine, setting off a series of increasingly powerful and concussive blasts that took 29 lives.

Seven months later, NPR pressed former CEO Don Blankenship to name a single step the company had taken in response to MSHA's recommendations. Blankenship suggested the leaks were so unpredictable it was difficult to take steps to neutralize them.

"I don't know that anyone could foresee that natural gas coming out of the floor at UBB was going to be ignited and cause an explosion," Blankenship said.

Actually, former Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins was in the mining section affected by the 2004 gas inundation when it occurred, according to a Massey Energy timesheet obtained by NPR and the Charleston Gazette.

Regulator Uninformed Of Leak Problem

The top MSHA regulator in the region claimed to know nothing about the methane leak problem in interviews with federal investigators, according to unreleased transcripts also obtained by NPR.

Bob Hardman was MSHA's district manager for four years before the UBB explosion, and he said that none of his predecessors or anyone on his staff reported the problem. A month after the disaster, Hardman told investigators he had just learned about methane leaks when two memos about them were mysteriously slid under his office door.

"If you'd known about those two memos," an investigator asked, "would you [have] looked at things a little bit differently?"

"Yes. Absolutely," Hardman responded, adding he would have required more robust ventilation or airflow in the mine. Strong ventilation dissipates methane gas before it ignites.

"And that failure to render this [methane leak] harmless is a shortcoming that has direct impact on the explosion and on the cause of the explosion," notes McAteer.

MSHA's Stricklin is defensive. "Massey didn't do anything," he says, also pointing to the excessive coal dust in the mine that turned a small methane ignition into a massive and deadly blast.

"If we didn't do anything then we need to do a better job in the future," Stricklin says. "I can't say that we blew the mine up, though."

McAteer is not so forgiving.

"You have a known problem. You go in and take a look at it. You make some recommendations on it. And then they disappear," McAteer says. "And five years, six years later, the mine explodes from that known problem."

McAteer also complains that the mine safety agency declined to provide documents and other information about the methane leak problem to his independent investigative team.

That means MSHA itself is the only entity investigating the agency's failures before the disaster. The internal review report is expected in the next several months.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.