When Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey Energy and its mines, it also acquired the legal responsibility for the April 5, 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners, making it the worst mining disaster in the United States in more than 40 years.
As part of the legal settlement, Alpha Natural Resources and the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Southern District of West Virginia reached a non-prosecution agreement in which Alpha Natural Resources would set aside more than $200 million for victims families and to go toward furthering mine safety. Thus the $48 million Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health was born.
On Oct. 10-11 the Alpha Foundation conducted its first research meeting at the Embassy Suites in Charleston, WV. Some of the top researches in the field of mine safety and health attended the meeting that included keynote speeches from Joseph A, Main, assistant secretary, U.S, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA); Jeffrey Kohler, research director, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health; Bruce Watzman, senior vice president, National Mining Association and Dennis O'Dell, safety and health director of the United Mine Workers Association as well open panel discussions with some of the top experts in the field.
The purpose of the initial meeting was to discuss the potential use of the $48 million that has been dedicated for research to meet the mission of the Alpha Foundation — "to improve mine health and safety through funding research and development projects by qualified academic institutions and other not-for-profit organizations."
Alpha Foundation president Michael Karmis said the foundation plans to have a rapid, and large impact on the field of mine safety.
Karmis said that while the foundation is still awaiting confirmation of its tax-exempt status it will be fully funded by December 2013. A call for proposals is expected to go out in January 2013 and the funding recommendations are anticipated to be announced in June 2013.
"The foundation plans to fund research from interest as well as principal of the fund," Karmis said. "We expect to have the fund depleted in six to eight years. We intend to have a significant impact."
Main opened the meeting speaking of the historic opportunity to use the Foundation to further safety in the nation's mine through the advancement of technology.
"In the past, the recent past, our country has had to look at progress in other countries to solve some of our own problems," Main said. "I believe we are changing that approach and we're on the path to becoming a world leader looking ahead to develop new technologies and at times, driven by past mining disasters."
While much research comes from prior accidents, Main stressed that the focus should be on how to prevent future accidents.
Watzman focused on what he called the soft research area - things such as creating a safety culture, management, behavior and leadership. While these areas are more challenging for research, Watzman said it is with the soft topics that the most change will come.
"Technology alone will not get us to our shared goal of zero fatalities," said Watzman. "The foundation provides a unique opportunity to not only bolster our traditional research model for driving improvement in mine safety and health, but to also look beyond that model to examine factors that drive safety performance."
Watzman added that many companies already go above and beyond the requirements of federal and state mining law. Encouraging that sort of safety culture is one of many barriers to improving mine safety and health.
Mining Engineering magazine will have a full report on the meeting in the November issue.