By Peggy Mackenzie
Three hundred feet underground when it happened, Stanley “Goose” Stewart later recalled the Upper Big Branch explosion.
“It’s always in the back of your head, and often times it comes to the front of your head,” said Stewart, who retired shortly after.
The mine, he told Congress during an investigation, was a “ticking time bomb.”
The nation’s worst coal mine disaster in decades exposed lax safety measures at some Appalachian mines, issues that persist five years later despite the crackdown that followed, according to an Associated Press review of federal inspection records.
Excess methane gas and flammable coal dust fueled a fireball that raced through the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal in Raleigh County on Apr. 5, 2010, killing 29 men.
The ventilation plan had been a problem at Upper Big Branch, as contaminated air stagnated where miners worked. Gas in the mine forced workers out from underground the day before the explosion, Pam Napper recalled. She got a call from her son Josh that day, after he left the mine.
“I could just tell he was really thinking about something really hard,” Napper said. “Apparently he knew something was going on but he wasn’t sure what it was all about.”
The next day, sparks from machinery cutting into rock ignited gas in the mine. Water sprays on the machinery were defective, meaning the flame wasn’t immediately put out. The fiery blast moved through the mine, growing as it touched flammable coal dust that had built up in underground shafts.
When it was over, Josh Napper and 28 other miners were dead.
It was a staggering number, the highest death toll in an American mine since 1970.
The explosion and mass casualties rocked the mining community, which had just recorded its safest year ever in coal mines. The revelation that inspectors repeatedly had cited the mine for buildups of coal dust and methane, with little disruption to the mine’s operations, drove calls for greater accountability. Federal authorities responded by stiffening safety rules, stepping up inspection raids and going after company higher-ups.
Prosecutors have won four convictions against former officials at Massey Energy, the company that owned Upper Big Branch, and secured a rare indictment on conspiracy charges against Don Blankenship, the former CEO. Indicted on federal charges, prosecutors allege that Blankenship conspired to cause routine and willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at UBB; conspired to cover up mine safety violations and hinder federal enforcement efforts by providing advance warning of government inspections; and made false statements about Massey’s safety practices prior to the explosion. He has pleaded not guilty and is set for trial April 20.
After acquiring Massey’s mines, Alpha Natural Resources agreed in 2011 to pay $210 million to compensate the victims’ families, pay for safety improvements and settle years of Massey fines.
In 2014, the nation again set a new low for coal mining deaths – 16 – in part because about 100 underground mines have closed in West Virginia and Kentucky over the last five years as the energy industry has moved away from Appalachian coal.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration also credits its revamped approach to inspections. After Upper Big Branch, MSHA began sending teams of inspectors to target problem mines, many of them underground operations in West Virginia and Kentucky, which are still home to nearly half of the nation’s coal mines. Federal inspectors have written nearly 14,000 citations during those visits, called impact inspections.
MSHA chief Joe Main has said the increased enforcement has reduced serious violations that could lead to injury or death by about 60 percent in mines that MSHA has kept a close watch over since 2010.
Yet some mines consistently fail to follow rules meant to curb explosion risks, including some owned by the company that took over Massey’s operations.
“You just have to shake your head and wonder what in the world are these mines doing?” said Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA official and a member of a special investigative panel that compiled a report on Upper Big Branch for Joe Manchin, then governor of West Virginia.
The fact that some mine operators continue to create conditions similar to those at Upper Big Branch should “really send chills up people’s spines, knowing that these situations are still occurring,” she said.
As with many regulatory agencies, MSHA’s enforcement powers are limited. It can levy fines and temporarily shut down a mine, but getting a mine closed for good requires asking a federal judge. MSHA has almost never taken it that far.
Data provided by MSHA indicates a crackdown in West Virginia on ventilation and combustible material problems after Upper Big Branch. Federal inspectors wrote an average of about 700 more of those citations annually from 2010 to 2014 than they did in the five years before the tragic explosion, even as West Virginia has about 30 fewer underground coal mines operating today than in 2010.