Big Coal Lost the War on Obama, but Won the War on Safety Regulations

What is the future of coal?
Nov. 14 2012 3:31 PM

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.

Local coal miner Kevin Honaker participate in a candle light vigil held for the deceased coal miners.
Kevin Honaker participates in a candlelight vigil for deceased coal miners in April 2010 in Montcoal, W. Va.

Photo by Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images.

Before dawn on April 5, 2010, Tommy Davis left his home in Dawes, W.Va. for work. The sinewy man, who rides Harleys and hunts black bears with a bow and arrow, labored alongside his son, brother, and two other relatives at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine.

On that day, Davis would survive the worst mine disaster in the United States in 40 years. His son, brother, and nephew were among 29 who died in a massive underground explosion that investigators say was caused by Massey Energy’s greedy and abusive corporate culture.

Since then, legislation to reform mine safety and stop future serial violators remains blocked by deep-pocketed Big Coal and the industry’s champions in Congress. Rather than address major shortcomings in safety regulation, the coal industry instead funded a bitter campaign against Barack Obama, accusing him of strangling their industry with a regulatory “war on coal.” Although Obama prevailed on Nov. 6, chances are slim that new safety laws will be passed, because the House of Representatives is still controlled by Republicans who have so far blocked reforms.

Upper Big Branch showed dramatically that the true problem with mine safety is ineffective and insufficient regulation, not too much of it.

Nestled in the Coal River Valley, Upper Big Branch, known as UBB, had a bad rap for safety—one even worse than usual for cost-cutting and labor-bashing Massey Energy. In 2009, the mine was cited by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration 515 times for safety violations, nearly twice the national average. UBB was assessed a total of $382,000 in fines that year.

During the previous month alone, UBB had been closed for safety violations more than 61 times by MSHA—more than any other mine in the country. Known for being “gassy” for the prevalence of methane, UBB had a problematic air ventilation system. It was later discovered that managers kept two sets of books—one for themselves and one for regulators. When inspectors arrived at mine offices on the surface for surprise checks, their presence was quickly and illegally relayed to underground shafts via company radio and telephones.

The firm’s chairman and chief executive was Donald Blankenship, a tall, jowly native of central Appalachia. He parlayed an extraordinary gift for crunching numbers with an indefatigable work ethic into becoming Big Coal’s best known and most notorious corporate executive. He battled safety and environmental regulators, bankrolled state political candidates who favored the coal industry, including judges, and waged an intense public relations war against ecological activists, whom he despised and dubbed “greeniacs.”

UBB was of crucial importance to Massey because it taps the Eagle Seam of incredibly rich metallurgical coal used for making coke for steel. In the spring of 2010, the global steel industry was booming, especially in China and other Asian countries that were churning out skyscrapers, bridges, and high-speed trains. During the first half of 2010, metallurgical coal exports from the United States would reach 39.8 million tons, a 62 percent increase, although exports have fallen since.

As Massey struggled to catch up with the unexpected profit opportunities, Tommy Davis was simply glad to have a job. Unemployment was running higher than 10 percent in Raleigh and surrounding counties. Noncoal work tended to be at gas stations, pizza joints, or Dollar General stores. Mining paid upward of $68,000 a year, or double the average annual salary in West Virginia. “You might make 24 dollars an hour at the surface mine, but in a deep mine, I make 31 an hour. That’s 140 to 150 dollars a day more,” Davis told me.

Arriving at the mine that terrible morning, Davis hopped aboard a mantrip, a kind of low-slung car that carries miners and their kit: helmets; battery packs; metatarsal-protective, steel-toed boots; and self-rescuers—temporary breathing apparatuses used if the mine becomes smoky or otherwise short of air. The shift began with problems. After being closed for more than a day for Easter, some sections of the mine had been flooded. Another oddity: Air seemed to be flowing through the shafts in abnormal directions. Miners later recalled it being a telltale sign that something wasn’t right.

One miner who seemed especially spooked going to work that day was Gary Wayne Quarles, a large 33-year-old nicknamed “Spanky.” The night before, at a Hooter’s restaurant in Beckley, Quarles was morose. He talked to his friends about his feeling that “something bad” was about to happen at UBB.

For Davis, going to work was a family reunion. Of the 61 miners working the 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, there was his 21-year-old son, Cory, and his brother Timmy. Two nephews, Cody Davis and Josh Napper, also were on the job.

The trip to the working area took half an hour and transported the miners nearly five miles into the mountain to a longwall mining apparatus. Considered the most efficient and profitable method of deep-mining, the longwall is a massive and expensive mining device that runs on tracks 1,000 feet long, back and forth, ripping out coal. Its spearhead consists of two devices called shearers that are covered with ultra-hard bits and 158 water-spray nozzles to keep coal dust down. The shearers roar back and forth, up and down, a seam. Quarles was one of several miners operating the device.

When their shift was coming to an end, Davis and a nephew headed out and were about 200 feet from the surface when “I felt this wind and all this shit coming out—rocks and wood. I made it outside and was trying to get my bearings. I thought it was a major rock fall, but then I remember them all back there: my son, my brother, my nephew, and the others.”

A massive explosion ripped through UBB’s maze of shafts at 3:02 p.m. It rolled seven miles underground, turning abruptly at right angles, sometimes looping around and inundating the same spaces twice. MSHA officials believe that the blast was caused when badly maintained bits on the longwall shearer hit a slab of sandstone. A shower of sparks ignited a basketball-sized torch of methane. Water from mining equipment was supposed to automatically douse it, but the gear didn’t work and a miner had shut the water off. About 90 seconds later, the flame touched off coal dust. The extremely explosive coal dust was supposed to kept down by a layer of limestone dust, but at UBB, the machinery that sprayed limestone dust was old and malfunctioning.

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