Alpha Foundation identifies leading candidates for funding

June 24, 2013

The Alpha Foundation announced that it has identified the most promising projects from a field of 160 and has contacted those with the projects, asking for detailed proposals and budgets as it moves toward its goal of finding the first round of fund winners by Oct. 1.

The Alpha Foundation is a $48 million fund that was formed under a $210 million settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

The initial pool of 160 entries for funding will be whittled to 10-15 projects, and some $10 million in grants will be awarded, the Associated Press reported.

The foundation also sent out dozens of rejection letters this week, but Alpha Foundation Chairman Michael Karmis said review teams representing labor, academics and industry sent feedback in hopes of keeping those groups engaged and helping them craft better proposals in the future.

“In all the areas, we see quite a lot of ideas — new concepts or papers taking the existing concepts farther than they have before,” said Karmis, a Virginia Tech professor.

Alpha Natural Resources bought the former Massey Energy Co., which owned Upper Big Branch in southern West Virginia when a massive explosion killed 29 men in April, 2010. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.

The settlement spared Alpha criminal prosecution and wiped out 370 safety violations related to the disaster but kept individuals on the hook. The criminal investigation has already put two former mine officials behind bars, and a third awaits sentencing, the Associated Press reported.

The agreement consisted of $35 million in fines for safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines, $46.5 million in restitution to the miners' families and $128 million for safety improvements, research and training. Alpha agreed to invest $48 million of that in a mine-safety research trust, and the foundation was formed the following April.

In their first meeting last fall, board members said they want to fill in gaps and overcome barriers to scientific research, not duplicate existing work.

Potential research areas could include black lung disease, technology to prevent explosive buildups of gas and dust, better mine communication systems and better mine-rescue capabilities. Industry groups also want the foundation to consider “soft research,” such as including safety and health management systems, risk management and leadership.

“We got a wonderful array of universities, some of whom have a significant track record on health and safety, and some of whom are newcomers,” Karmis said.

The non-prosecution agreement also required Alpha to build a training center, and it opened the $23 million Running Right Leadership Academy in Julian, WV (ME, June 21). It gives safety instructors a place to create and control crises.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the lab employs some of state-of-the-art equipment that Alpha is deploying to its mines under the settlement, including a continuous oxygen system that replaces the belt-worn air packs miners have long used when trying to escape.





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