Alpha to seal Upper Big Branch, the site of fatal mine blast

Eliminating a source of continuing controversy, Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR) announced April 4 that it plans to permanently close the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in southern West Virginia, the site of an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

At the time of the accident, the mine was owned by Massey Energy, a company that Alpha acquired in June 2011. When Alpha made that buy of Massey, the mine was still idle. The portals that allow entry to the mine will be permanently sealed with concrete barriers and areas around the portals will be reclaimed, said Alpha. All boreholes will be plugged and mine fan shafts will be capped, barring access to the mine. The work is expected to be completed this summer.

Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said, “Though two years have passed, everyone still has vivid memories of the tragedy and the suffering the miners’ families endured. For all of us in the mining industry, it is a solemn reminder of why we must always put safety first in everything we do at work and at home. Our hearts go out to the families of those lost at UBB on this anniversary of the accident.”

Crutchfield noted how Alpha has been putting ex-Massey employees through its proprietary Running Right safety process, which has led to a significant improvement in safety performance. “We are currently making significant safety-related investments in leading-edge technologies that will make coal mines safer throughout the industry,” he added. “And this June, Alpha will break ground on the Running Right Leadership Academy, a state-of-the-art center for safety training that eventually will be open to the entire industry. While we wish this tragedy had never happened, we are committed to doing our part in helping the coal industry continuously improve its safety performance.”

Crutchfield didn’t indicate whether Alpha would access the remaining Upper Big Branch coal reserves through a new mine entry nearby, though that is something that Massey talked about doing after the accident. Alpha is working on the plan to seal UBB with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training.

MSHA data shows that UBB, listed under Alpha’s Performance Coal unit, produced 438,715 tons in the early part of 2010 prior to the explosion, and 1.2 million tons in 2009. It had produced a met-quality coal, with AK Steel as one of its customers. The mine site is in Raleigh County, W.Va.

With $7.1bn in total revenue in 2011, Alpha ranks as America’s second-largest coal producer by revenue and third-largest by production. Alpha is the nation’s largest supplier of metallurgical coal used in the steel-making process and is a major supplier of thermal coal to electric utilities and manufacturing industries.

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.