The root causes of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion were the “unlawful policies and practices” implemented by Performance Coal Co. and Massey Energy.
That was the conclusion of a final federal report on a West Virginia coal mine blast that killed 29 men details 369 safety violations at the mine, including 12 that regulators say contributed to the blast.
The report by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) released the same day as a record $210 million settlement by the new owners of the mine where the disaster occurred in April 2010. The settlement includes $10.8 million in fines related to the Upper Big Branch mine.
The report labels nine of the violations “flagrant,” the most serious designation. They include warning miners that inspectors were on site, failing to do proper safety inspections and other violations that it says could have prevented the deadly blast.
The agency also said it will conduct an internal review of MSHA’s actions before and after the explosion. Relatives of the victims and union officials have rebuked MSHA for failing to prevent the disaster.
Performance Coal owns the mine and was a subsidiary of Massey at the time. Massey since merged into Alpha Natural Resources.
“The evidence accumulated during the investigation demonstrates that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law,” the report’s executive summary states.
The investigation pointed to examples of “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards,” the summary states. The report also accuses the companies of attempting to hide noncompliance with federal and state regulations.
During the investigation of the April 5, 2010 blast, witnesses testified mine management intimidated miners by telling them that reporting safety violations would threaten their jobs, the summary states. The report concluded that because of that intimidation, no safety or health complaints went to MSHA about the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Other findings outlined in the executive summary include:
• The companies established a system to give warning when safety inspectors were headed to the mine.
• The companies kept two sets of safety and health hazard books for the Upper Big Branch Mine.
• The companies let the conditions at the mine deteriorate, leading to the explosion. The explosion was caused by, “a methane ignition that transitioned into a small methane explosion that then set off a massive coal dust explosion.”
• Basic safety precautions could have prevented the explosion. The mine lacked working methane gas detection methods and proper ventilation.
• The companies allowed significant amounts of coal dust to accumulate in the mine. That coal dust became the fuel for the explosion.