MSHA internal finds that Massey hid problems at Upper Big Branch mine

A U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration internal review has found problems with MSHA’s policies and procedures related to the April 2010 blast that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch deep mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

That blast set off a new wave of mine safety enforcement actions by federal and state regulators. MSHA has done a separate final report on the accident itself, and on March 6 released a report on its own internal review of its actions prior to the blast in terms of mine safety inspections.

On April 2010, a longwall face methane ignition at Upper Big Branch transitioned into a small methane explosion that propagated into a massive coal dust explosion. A total of 29 miners were killed and two miners were seriously injured in the deadliest U.S. coal mine disaster in nearly 40 years. The MSHA accident investigation team determined that the explosion occurred because Performance Coal and its parent company, Massey Energy, violated fundamental safety standards and failed to take corrective actions to prevent the catastrophic explosion.

Notable is that Massey Energy was bought in June 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR), and so Alpha has taken on the issues related to the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch accident.

MSHA policy requires that an internal review of MSHA’s enforcement activities be conducted after each mining accident that results in three or more fatalities. The agency team that conducted this review was comprised of MSHA employees who did not have current enforcement responsibility in MSHA’s District 4 office, which handled routine Upper Big Branch inspections.

Performance Coal concealed its highly non-compliant conduct in a number of ways, the MSHA report said. The company provided advance notice to workers and mine supervisors of MSHA inspections, allowing foremen to correct violations before inspectors arrived underground to detect them. It concealed several worker injuries by failing to report them to MSHA as required, the report added. Performance Coal recorded hazards in internal production reports rather than in the examination books required by MSHA standards. Finally, it intimidated miners into not reporting hazards to MSHA, the report said.

“These intentional efforts to evade well-established Mine Act provisions, which are intended to provide MSHA the opportunity to determine operator compliance or designed to make available vital safety and health information, interfered with MSHA’s ability to identify and require abatement of hazardous conditions at the mine,” said the report. “The Internal Review team found that MSHA inspection and management personnel were dedicated to their work and determined to further the agency’s mission. Although at times limited by their inexperience, inadequate direction, training, and supervision, their primary intent was to protect the health and safety of miners. Nevertheless, the team identified instances where District 4 did not follow established policies and procedures when carrying out its responsibilities under the Mine Act at UBB.”

Some of those internal MSHA deficiencies currently are being addressed or already have been addressed by the agency. Where appropriate, the report includes recommendations to enhance MSHA’s performance and better promote the safety and health of miners. Here are some of the review team’s most significant findings.

  • Inspections – During the review period, District 4 personnel conducted six regular inspections of UBB. Some portions of the mine were not inspected during each of these inspections. However, the inspections generally were more complete toward the end of the review period. District 4 personnel inspected the longwall tailgate travelway on four occasions after the district manager approved supplemental roof support requirements for this entry in December 2009. None of these enforcement personnel identified and cited the operator’s failure to install the required level of supplemental roof support in accordance with the approved roof control plan.
  • Use of Elevated Enforcement Tools – The number and severity of enforcement actions taken by District 4 at UBB were among the highest in the nation. In fiscal year 2009, the mine was issued more section 104(d) citations and orders than any other mine in the nation. In the 18 months before the explosion, District 4 personnel identified and cited 684 violations at UBB, and MSHA proposed more than $1.3m in civil penalties for these violations. District 4 inspectors determined that 56 of the 684 violations were the result of the operator’s unwarrantable failure to comply with mandatory safety and health standards. However, MSHA found that its people did not effectively use other available elevated enforcement tools. For example, District 4 did not forward eight violations to headquarters for review to determine whether they should be flagged as “flagrant” violations, even though the violations met the criteria for headquarters review.
  • Float Coal Dust and Rock Dust Sampling – Inspectors did not identify deficiencies in the operator’s program for cleaning up accumulations of loose coal, coal dust, and float coal dust. Inspectors did not effectively use the operator’s examination records to identify the extent of noncompliance with rock dust standards along belt conveyors and to determine the operator’s negligence in allowing those accumulations to go uncorrected. Among the problems cited was that MSHA inspectors did not sample mine dust to determine whether the operator applied sufficient rock dust in a number of newly-mined areas because inspectors and supervisors continued to follow superseded rock dust survey procedures.
  • Mine Plans – Massey engineers failed to develop sound mining plans, and it is apparent they depended on District 4 specialists to correct deficiencies in the plans they submitted to MSHA, the report found. The lack of planning and inadequate engineering that were identified in the MSHA accident investigation report were major deficiencies in the mining plans. While district specialists were able to identify numerous deficiencies in the operator’s submissions, some significant deficiencies were not identified.
  • Ventilation Plan – The District 4 ventilation department reviewed two base plans and 75 ventilation plan supplements for UBB during the review period. There was no indication that the district unduly influenced the contents of the operator’s ventilation plans. Due to his concerns regarding ventilation at the UBB mine, the District 4 ventilation department supervisor initiated a saturation inspection in March 2010, to simultaneously evaluate the ventilation of the 1 North Longwall, Headgate #22, and Tailgate #22. He also contacted corporate management officials on March 16, 2010, to draw attention to ongoing ventilation problems at UBB that were not being addressed by mine management. In 2004, MSHA’s Directorate of Technical Support investigated a methane inundation related to floor cracks that developed along a defined geologic zone at UBB. In a follow up report, Technical Support documented several methods to mitigate inundations that may occur in the future. However, the mine ventilation plan for UBB was not revised to include any of these methods.
  • Review and Use of Mine Examination Records – District 4 personnel did not effectively review the operator’s examination record books, the report found. During the four months preceding the explosion, there were hundreds of entries recorded in examination records documenting the amount of time hazards existed without corrective actions. This information could have been used by inspectors to augment their inspection activities.

Alpha deals with UBB aftermath

In its Feb. 29 annual Form 10-K report, Alpha outlined the status of the UBB situaton. A number of legal actions are pending relating to past safety conditions at former Massey mines, the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine and other related matters, including accusations of securities fraud. Although in December 2011, Alpha entered into a non-prosecution agreement and settlement resolving a number of these matters in which it agreed to various measures and commitments totaling approximately $209m, a number of legal actions remain outstanding, and it is possible that other actions may be brought in the future.

In particular, Alpha said it is now subject to two purported class actions that allege violations of the federal securities laws, derivative actions against current and former Massey directors and officers and actions brought by certain of the families of the 29 miners that died in the UBB explosion and certain employees and contractors alleging injuries as a result of the UBB explosion.

In addition, two former Massey employees have been convicted of federal criminal charges and one former Massey employee, who was hired by a subsidiary of Alpha following the Massey acquisition and has since been placed on administrative leave, has been charged with a federal criminal conspiracy. Massey’s former officers, directors and employees may continue to be subject to future actions and claims, Alpha noted. Under the merger agreement with Massey, Alpha agreed to leave in place and not to modify those provisions granting rights to indemnification and exculpation from liabilities for acts or omissions occurring at or prior to the effective time of the Massey acquisition and related rights to the advancement of expenses in favor of any current or former director, officer, employee or agent of Massey contained in the organizational documents of Massey and its subsidiaries and certain related indemnification agreements.

“Federal and state authorities inspect our operations, and given the UBB explosion and related announcements by government authorities, we anticipate additional requirements may be imposed and heightened inspection intensity,” the Alpha Form 10-K added. “In response to the explosion, federal and West Virginia authorities have announced special inspections of coal mines for, among other safety concerns, the accumulation of coal dust and the proper ventilation of gases such as methane. Certain of these inspections have already occurred. In addition, both the federal government and the state of West Virginia have announced that they are considering changes to mine safety rules and regulations, which could potentially result in or require additional or enhanced safety features, more frequent mine inspections, stricter enforcement practices and enhanced reporting requirements.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.