UPDATE: 25 dead, 2 hurt, 4 missing after mine explosion

Tina Grady Barbaccia

April 5, 2010

Updated on Tuesday, April 6, from the original April 5, report.

Twenty-five people are dead, two have been taken to hospitals, and four are still missing after an explosion at the Massey Energy Co. Upper Big Branch coal mine in Whitesville, W.V., yesterday afternoon, Don Blankenship, the company’s chairman and CEO, confirms

These are updated numbers from Blankenship’s original confirmation of seven people dead and 19 unaccounted for.

Rescue efforts are currently suspended due to conditions underground. Rescue efforts will resume as soon as conditions allow, Massey Energy Co. says.

Massey Energy Company, headquartered in Richmond, Va., with operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia.

The names of the dead and the injured were not being released at the time of this news post, pending the notification of the miners’ next-of-kin, Blankenship said.

“Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families,” Blankenship said in an April 5 written statement. following the incident. “We are working diligently on rescue efforts and continue to partner with all of the appropriate agencies. Our prayers go out to the families of the miners. We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing.”

In an updated press statement on April 6, Blankenship said: “We mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy. I want to offer my condolences to the miners’ families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch. And I want to thank the rescue teams and the Massey members who continue to work hard on behalf of our miners and their families.”

U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis issued a statement in which she said: “My heartfelt condolences go out to the families, co-workers and communities that are mourning the loss of lives at the Upper Big Branch South Mine in Whitesville, W.Va.  My thoughts and prayers are with them.”

This incident comes after a record-breaking year of safety last year and an excellent track record for the last half a dozen years.

On the company’s Web site, its front page points out that in 2009, Massey recorded an all-time best NFDL incident rate (a measure of lost-time accidents) of 1.67.

“This is an improvement over last year’s rate of 1.93, our previous best result,” Massey has posted on its Web site. By comparison, the bituminous coal mining industry average NFDL rate was 2.95 in 2008.  2009 marked the 6th consecutive year and the 17th year out of the past 20 years in which Massey’s safety performance was stronger than the industry average, 

Elizabeth Chamberlin, Massey vice president of safety and training, notes on the site: “We strive for sustainable excellence in safety. It is our top priority every day. We are proud of our tradition of developing safety innovations, which we freely share with others to the benefit of the entire industry.”

However, even with an excellent safety record this coal mine incident has the potential to not only tarnish the coal industry’s reputation but mining as a whole.

The entire mining industry has always struggled with a negative image. But after the tragic Sago coal mine explosion and Aracoma Coal Alma No.1 coal mine incident, both in 2006, and Utah and Indiana coal mine incidents in 2007, legislation and federal regulations have been rampant and mining has been brought more into the public eye.

In reaction to the the Sago incident, The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006, was passed in May of that year in an effort to further protecting the safety and heath of the nation’s mineworkers.

However, coal mining and aggregate mining are very different, and sometimes the various types of mining aren’t differentiated and a “one-size-fits-all” mentality unintentionally creates unnecessary and unfair burdens on the regulated community. This was a major concern after the Sago incident because the construction aggregates industry is subject to the federal Mine Safety and Health Act, which has an extensive set of regulatory requirements.

The final version of the bill mostly applied to the coal industry. However, the legislation codified provisions that were applicable to all mining sectors — such as the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) 15-minute emergency notification requirement when an incident or accident poses a reasonable risk of death; increased penalties, including a minimum $2,000 fine for Section 104 (d) (1) violation; and the increase of the civil fine for “flagrant” violations to a maximum $220,000.

In Jan. 23, 2006, testimony to the Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services of the Senate Committee on Appropriations MSHA Oversight Hearing while the Mine Act of 2006 was being drafted, Charlie E. Hawkins, III, then executive vice president and COO for the National , Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA), said that the events in the Sago Mine and Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 Mine disasters were undoubtedly tragic. However, he pointed out that the aggregates industry safety record has steadily improved and is “attributable to a combination of more effective safety and health programs developed and implemented by the industry over the past decade in response to increased Mine Safety and Health Administration regulation of the mining industry and heightened enforcement.”

“The loss of even one life, let alone 14 lives, is devastating,” Hawkins said in his testimony. “Nevertheless, the safety record of the mining industry, and the aggregates industry in particular, has improved due to a heightened level of effort invested by the industry to sustain an improved performance.”

But despite safety improvements in the aggregates mining sector, regulation has continued after mining tragedies regardless of the mining industry sector. In 2008, supplemental mine safety legislation (S-MINER) was passed in response to the the 2007 coal mine incidents. The aggregates industry — particularly NSSGA — vehemently opposed the legislation because it was geared toward the coal mining industry. (Click here to see NSSGA’s Public Policy Position Paper on S-MINER.)

See the May 2010 print issue of Aggregates Manager more analysis on what this incident means for the aggregates industry.

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