MSHA Chief on UBB Independent Report Findings

by Joseph Main on May 19, 2011 · 0 comments

On April 5, 2010, the worst mining disaster in nearly four decades devastated the mining community.  To the families of those who died at Upper Big Branch (UBB), their friends and neighbors, and to every miner in this country, I made a pledge that MSHA would lead a thorough investigation.

Likewise, then-Governor Joe Manchin promised a full investigation by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training.  He also appointed an independent investigation team to look into what happened at UBB.  The Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) released their report today.

While our own investigation is ongoing, and we will be sharing our findings with the public in the weeks and months to come, it is fair to say that MSHA is in agreement with many of the GIIP findings.  Their report echoes many of findings that MSHA has been sharing with victims’ families and the public.

The tragedy at UBB was entirely preventable.  Maintaining a safe mine is the responsibility of the operator. 

GIIP agrees with the evidence analyzed by MSHA to date. It reveals that methane was ignited at the tail of the longwall as the longwall shearer, which had faulty water sprays, cut into sandstone in the mine roof, the likely source of the ignition.  The ignition then transitioned into a major coal dust explosion.

The report concludes that the disaster occurred because Massey Energy–the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine–failed to maintain or ignored several basic safety systems at UBB. This is consistent with the evidence MSHA has found to date.  The report concludes that Massey continually failed to: properly examine the mine to find and fix hazards and violations; control the accumulation of coal dust in the mine by adequately rock dusting; maintain water spray systems on the longwall cutting shearer; submit an effective mine ventilation plan; and comply with approved plans . 

These basic protections–which are needed to prevent mine accidents–were broken at UBB. Massey knew they were having serious compliance problems and failed to effectively fix them.  However, as the GIIP report points out, the company did more than fail to act.  Massey promoted a culture that “prized production over safety” and where “wrongdoing became acceptable.” And as such, it violated the law and disregarded basic safety practices.

As part of this culture, the GIIP Report found that Massey employed tactics to intimidate miners from speaking out about unsafe conditions.  As we heard from Congressional testimony of miners last spring, Massey also hid violations from government enforcement agencies, such as through advance notice of inspections, which is prohibited under the Mine Act.   

Findings in the GIIP report are also consistent with MSHA’s enforcement history at UBB.  From January 1, 2009, until April 5, 2010, MSHA issued 576 citations and 64 closure orders at UBB, and assessed more than $1 million in penalties.  MSHA issued 48 closure orders for Massey’s unwarrantable failure to comply with health and safety standards, the most of any coal mine in the country in 2009.  In terms of ventilation alone, between January 1, 2009 and April 5, 2010, MSHA issued 84 citations and 17 closure orders for Massey’s failure to comply with its ventilation plan and failure to maintain ventilation controls.  The GIIP report also identifies areas where MSHA could have been more effective in intervening to enforce the law in support of a safer mine environment.  We take these concerns seriously, and look forward to reviewing their findings and recommendations in more detail.

MSHA is a “find and fix” organization.  And we are playing a significant role in making mines safer.  Yet, there are mine operators that don’t get it.  They operate differently when MSHA is not there, and they know MSHA cannot be there all the time.  That’s why we have called on Congress to provide us with more tools to protect miners.  We need to make sure that recalcitrant operators do get it.

Joe Main is the assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

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