How Many Coal Miner Deaths Does It Take To Pass Safety Regulations?
Why the 29 who died at the Upper Big Branch mine were not enough.
The coal dust conflagration fed on itself as it zipped miles around darkened corridors. It was so powerful that some miners were decapitated. Others were asphyxiated. Tommy Davis’ son, brother, and nephew were killed thousands of feet from the source of the explosion. Close to the source of the blast, Nicolas McCroskey, the miner who had had supper with Quarles at Hooters the night before the blast, was killed, as was Quarles. Rescuers missed finding McCroskey’s remains for several days because they had been blown up into the roof of the shaft. The rescuers had been looking down and to their sides.
On the surface, a sense of disaster pervaded the Coal River Valley. Several miles to the south of UBB on Route 3, the only road to the mine, Gary Jarrell was working the cash register at the 125-year-old Jarrell General Store. He noticed one ambulance, then two, then a fast-moving convoy of rescue vehicles. “Rumors were flying about which mine it was,” he says.
Massey officials noticed carbon monoxide monitors started going dead about six minutes after the blast. They wouldn’t call for help for another 15 minutes. A group from Consol Energy, a Massey competitor, heard of the situation on an emergency alert network and came. Traditionally, coal firms respond quickly with their own trained rescue teams regardless of whose mine it is. Yet after they arrived, Consol officials became so disgusted with the haphazard way Massey was handling the rescue that they feared for their lives and quickly packed up and left—an incredible statement of no confidence. “Consol made the call not to participate in operations,” says Lynn Seay, a Consol spokeswoman.
Finally, at 8:10 p.m., Massey announced that the blast was a serious event and set up a staging area at Whitesville, a scruffy mining town a few miles up Route 3. Terry Ellison, whose brother, Steve Harrah, was killed in the blast, heard about the disaster from friends via cellphone. By 7:30 p.m., about 1,000 people had already gathered in Whitesville. “No one called us. The company didn’t call us,” says Ellison. Patty Quarles, the mother of Gary Wayne Quarles, commented on the abruptness of Massey officials. “They would shout out, ‘If I call out your name, go over to Whitesville Fire Department and identify the body.’ That’s how cold it was,” she said.
At the time, Massey said seven miners were dead and 19 missing. It would be five more days before all 29 of the dead were accounted for. At one point Don Blankenship arrived at the recue staging area. He kept to himself as his company’s directors and lieutenants spun the story that the disaster was caused by a seismic breach that released natural gas. They characterized the event as “an act of God.”
Three independent probes would be scathing in their findings. A probe ordered by then Gov. Joe Manchin and another by MSHA ripped Massey’s greedy corporate culture for the deaths, while another by the United Mine Workers of America, which tried and failed to organize UBB three times, dubbed the disaster “industrial homicide.” Blankenship tried to push blame back on MSHA, but he was forced out in December 2010 with a golden parachute worth $86 million. Shortly afterward, Massey was sold to competitor Alpha Natural Resources for $7.3 billion.
Alpha was nothing like Massey in its corporate style. Its executives exude a worldlier, sophisticated air. The company has managed its image well by keeping on most of Massey’s 6,700 employees and re-educating them on safety through its “Running Right” training program.
Alpha and its sister firms, however, have an agenda—blunting serious mine-safety-reform legislation. Historically, major mine disasters have been followed by new safety laws. One such law created MSHA and toughened inspections in 1969 after a blast in Farmington, W.Va. killed 78 miners. In 1977, federal law finally got around to forcing reclamation of strip mines after a 1972 flood killed 125 residents living along Buffalo Creek in West Virginia. Another law following fatalities in 2006 forced mine firms to equip miners with radio detection devices to make it easier to locate them underground.
A far-reaching law inspired by UBB was proposed in the summer of 2010 by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who died shortly after introducing it. It would have protected mine whistleblowers, made knowing violations of safety rules a felony and not just a misdemeanor, and held company directors and high-ranking coal-firm officials criminally liable if they knew about safety issues and did nothing. The Byrd bill would have helped stop serial violators like Massey Energy from continuing to operate unsafely by challenging every citation. It would extend to MSHA the same subpoena power held by other federal regulators. The proposal, later upgraded by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, ended up in limbo after Republicans gained control of the House in the 2010 elections. They blocked it under a barrage of opposition from coal firms and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Sen. Rockefeller told me this summer that he intended to work hard at passing the bill. With the House still in GOP control after the 2012 elections, however, that’s a long shot.
Big Coal’s strategy, meanwhile, is to let Upper Big Branch fade into memory. The industry is diverting attention away from safety by attacking Obama’s modest plans to limit emissions from coal-fired electricity stations, some of them a half-century old. In doing so, it disregards the real reasons for its declining profits and layoffs—competition from cheap natural gas and sagging Asian demand for metallurgical coal.
Coal firms still made Obama’s supposed regulatory severity a campaign issue and pumped millions of dollars into defeating him, more than double that in 2008. Alpha is a major campaign donor.
Alpha is also spearheading a sophisticated strategy that would block new laws while privatizing mine safety and making compliance with new methods largely voluntary. Last December, it entered into a $210 million agreement with federal prosecutors to pay out $47 million to UBB survivors, $35 million to cover Massey’s fines, and $128 million to raise safety standards at its mines. Of that, $48 million will create a foundation to research mine safety.
“It’s important to note,” Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia wrote in an email to me, “that the resolution between my office and Alpha concerns only criminal charges against Alpha itself. My office has full authority to bring criminal charges against employees of the former Massey.”
What isn’t mentioned is that as Alpha raises its internal safety bar through its settlement, other coal firms are under no legal obligation to follow suit. As for the new coal safety foundation, it isn’t certain yet what kind of research it will advocate or how it will be made applicable to the industry. One possibility is studying the resurgence of silicosis pulmonary disease afflicting Appalachian miners forced to breathe more rock dust as underground coal seams get thinner. Before, the major problem had been the threat of black lung disease from breathing coal dust, but mining machines are now cutting into more rock formations, releasing more silica.
The huge safety issues raised by Upper Big Branch and the behavior of Massey Energy don’t seem to get mentioned any more. Criminal prosecution has so far been lackluster. Only two low-level Massey managers have been charged and convicted regarding UBB. Business seems to be going back to usual. In fact, Blankenship is staging a bit of a comeback. After staying quiet for nearly two years as the furor over UBB subsided and his company fell apart, he has drummed up publicity by giving $300,000 to Marshall University, his alma mater. He has also started a website to blog about his remarkable life.
Peter Galuszka is the author of Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal. A former Moscow bureau chief for Businessweek, he has been covering coal and other energy issues for nearly four decades.