Alpha Natural Resources Inc. has created the nonprofit Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health to study ways to improve mine safety as part of settlement with the U.S. government resulting from the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. The foundation will be run by three mining experts, including former SME President Michael Karmis (2002), who will oversee a $48 million budget.
Karmis, director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech, will work with foundation head Keith Heasley, a professor of mining engineering at West Virginia University and Dr. David Wegman, who has a medical degree and is an emeritus professor of work environment at University of Massachusetts Lowell, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Mine inspections have increased following the death of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010 and federal regulators have set tougher rules for mine operators. The mining industry responded on its one and rolled out a program, COREsafety, earlier this year with the goal of zero fatalities by 2015.
Experts say mines in the U.S. generally are safer than those in most other countries, as measured by injury and fatality rates, but that companies lag behind their counterparts in Australia in adopting the latest technologies for communications and tracking miners underground.
Although the three-member panel is free to choose which areas to focus on, Wegman said the group would be guided partly by investigations into the Upper Big Branch accident that found that management failed to control accumulations of explosive methane gas and coal dust. He said one potential research area could involve developing ways to monitor gases in mines on a continuous basis, rather than with the periodic monitoring now done. “We will try to throw the broadest possible net out to interested parties” with research ideas, he said.
Heasley said he expected the vast majority of money to be spent on research, with only a little set aside for minimal staffing. He said he expected the money to be distributed over several years and that the program could last five to eight years.
“We’ll be spreading out the funding over several years. I think that’s the appropriate way to get the best bang for your buck,” he said. “You can’t just drop all this money on people in one fell swoop.”
Alpha Natural Resources agreed to create the foundation as part of a nonprosecution agreement with Booth Goodwin, the U.S. Attorney in Charleston, WV, in December to resolve the company’s criminal liability related to the accident. Alpha inherited the liability after buying Upper Big Branch’s former owner, Massey Energy Co., last year.
Alpha agreed to pay $209 million—including $48 million earmarked for the safety foundation—to resolve civil and criminal penalties stemming from the accident.
Kevin Crutchfield, Alpha's CEO, said the foundation is an opportunity to “drive the latest developments and innovation in mine safety and health to the benefit of miners around the world.”
Goodwin said the foundation would operate independently from both the company and the U.S. Attorney’s office. The three members of the panel plan to meet this summer to set priorities.