With 25 dead and 4 missing, the Upper Big Branch disaster is the worst coal mining accident in the US since 1984. Although the reason for the explosion remains to be determined, it’s highly likely methane gas is the culprit. Upper Big Branch is eerily like the Sago disaster that killed 12 miners in 2006.
As for the 4 missing miners, officials hold out hope for their survival, but it seems unlikely. Rescuers are unable to enter the mine, due to the methane levels, until 1,200-foot ventilation shafts are drilled. If the methane levels will support explosive combustion, they also suppress breathable oxygen, meaning survival of the unaccounted for miners is not likely.
Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine is a non-union operation. Significantly, it “liberates” 1.5 million cubic feet of methane gas in a 24 hour period. United Mine Workers spokesman Phil Smith had this to say about the mine’s safety violations.
Ventilation—which is very important in mining and when a mine liberates as much methane as this one—and maintenance of mine escapeways are two of the most serious.
Sadly, the Upper Big Branch disaster should never have happened. The mine received 39 violations regarding extracting methane in 2009, 15 of which were considered “significant and substantial.” It should be no surprise, then, that Massey is a big political donor, and not necessarily to candidates in so-called mining country.
Owners of the mine, Massey Energy, have a history of safety infractions. The Upper Big Branch mine alone has been assessed about $1.8 million in safety violation penalties. Of that, the company has paid a mere $365,000.
The Upper Big Branch mine liberated, or off-gassed, 1.5 million cubic feet of methane every day! That’s a helluva lot! What about capturing that for generating electricity? I get worked up about a local landfill that routinely burns off minor amounts of methane gas. In any case, ventilation of the mine is critical for safety and the amount of methane warranted spot inspections by regulators every 5 days.
Massey’s 2009 safety violations were double 2008. Massey Energy paid nearly $900,000 for safety violations last year. The Upper Big Branch mine, alone, was cited for 458 safety violations in 2009. Many of those were related to the ventilation plan and its implementation. According to Davitt McAteer, former director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) under Pres. Bill Clinton:
That’s a high number. That’s a number that suggests that you’ve got some problems and should be a red flag for people who are involved in management to say “are we going in the right direction here?”
So, Massey’s safety violations were up, along with penalties. The company donates big to political campaigns. And the Upper Big Branch mine has excessive methane gas. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Yet, according to McAteer:
We ought not to have disasters of this magnitude in this country. We’ve got mines that operate 25, 30 years without a fatal. Um, we’ve got mines that operate 40 years without a disaster. Tens of dozens of mines. We shouldn’t have a standard that allows for mines to have this kind of accident, uh, where you kill 25 people.
Preventable? You betcha.