Alpha's safety improvement noted by prosecutors

June 18, 2012

In the six months since it acquired Massey Energy, Alpha Natural Resources has made a strong and visible commitment to safety that includes a $210 million court settlement and an $18 million investment in a safety training facility. These efforts were acknowledged in June when the company reported that it has cut its accident rate by a third and its injury rate by 25 percent at the former Massey mines.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin told the Associated Press that the progress report he and lead prosecutor Steven Ruby received shows Virginia-based Alpha making “pretty substantial progress” as it tries to overhaul the Massey Energy mines it acquired last summer and fix a corporate culture that devalued safety.

“This is like turning a freight liner,” Goodwin said. “This is a company that now has 11,000 coal miners, and they can’t just turn on a dime. But they got pretty close.”

Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey following an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years, and it led to the retirement of former chief executive Don Blankenship and criminal charges against a former superintendent and security chief.

Ruby said his criminal investigation remains active.

Four reports about Upper Big Branch Mine agree on a number of major issues and all four concluded Massey allowed methane and coal dust to accumulate, and worn and broken cutting equipment created the spark that ignited the fuel. Further more, broken and clogged water sprayers allowed a flare-up to turn into a much larger explosion.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) said the root cause was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life-threatening problems, noting managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books — an accurate one for itself, and a fake one for regulators.

They also habitually warned miners underground when an inspector arrived on site, trying to give crews time to make the mine appear safe.
Training to stop those practices is among the many components of the non-prosecution agreement Goodwin’s office reached with Alpha in December 2011. It wiped the slate clean of some 370 safety violations related to Upper Big Branch and required Alpha to pay $35 million in fines for violations there and at other Massey mines.

Those fines have been paid, and in a five-page letter to prosecutors, Alpha says it’s making progress on other required initiatives. Alpha asked prosecutors to refrain from making its full report public, citing concerns about competitive information.

Among the improvements already made, Alpha says it has done remedial maintenance at all Massey mines and added safety personnel at some; purchased digital sensors that can continuously monitor air flow and methane levels; created a foundation that will spend $48 million on research and development in mine safety and health and hired a new regulatory compliance director.

The $18 million training center is scheduled to open in Julian, WV next June. There, miners will be able to train for dangerous conditions in a 9,000 m2 (96,000-sq ft) simulation laboratory.

This month, the company is buying its first cascading oxygen system — similar to what firefighters use — to give miners an uninterrupted supply of air while trying to escape. Alpha expects to eventually spend at least $10 million on that technology.

It’s also hired a company to develop wireless sensors that can check for methane anywhere in a mine, Goodwin said. They will be in place in every Alpha mine by next year.


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