From the Editor - Learning from Coal Disasters

Steve Fiscor
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) recently completed its investigation of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine disaster that killed 29 miners in West Virginia last year. Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey Energy earlier this year and it recently settled with the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) for $209 million. Of that settlement, each of the families received $1.5 million. MSHA cited a corporate culture that put production before safety as the primary reason for the explosion.

The explosion at the UBB mine, however, wasn’t the only coal mine disaster in 2010. Outside of China, two other major coal mine explosions occurred: the Raspadskaya coal mine explosion in Siberia took the lives of 90 miners during May 2010, and consecutive explosions at the Pike River coal mine in New Zealand killed 29 miners during November. A little more than a year later, the third phase of the New Zealand’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster began in the Greymouth District Court. New Zealand’s Department of Labour issued 25 charges against the now bankrupt Pike River, its former CEO and a drilling contractor. The violations carry a maximum fine of $250,000 each for a total of possibly $6.25 million. A separate police investigation into the disaster is ongoing.

While transparency is not one of Russia’s strong points, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived at Raspadskaya quickly. His patience for oligarchs and the treatment of their workers was wearing thin prior to the explosion. Justice was probably leveled swiftly and in a much different manner than it would be handled in the West. The company has spent $190 million to rehabilitate the mine, which included an unspecified “social transfer.” They plan to invest another $80 million in the mine.

The three explosions had much in common. All of the mines were cutting coal from deep, gassy, bituminous coal beds. They also all occurred during the spring. It’s also safe to say that all of these miners put production before safety. In the U.S., the trail of MSHA citations leading up to the UBB disaster was remarkable. During a press conference, reporters grilled MSHA administrators over this. MSHA followed procedures. The regulatory situation in New Zealand, which is not a major hub for mining, was much different. The inspector assigned to the Pike River mine admitted emotionally he was “under-resourced, inadequately trained and not supported in his role as health and safety inspector.”

A certain level of competitive camaraderie exists among mining professionals at leading mining companies when it comes to safety programs. Some believe Australia and Canada have surpassed the U.S. No doubt, the U.S. Bureau of Mines pioneered efforts and today NIOSH continues to carry the torch. From the moment the DoJ announcement was made, it was clear that Alpha, which is viewed as a leader in safety in the U.S., had a hand in crafting the settlement. Instead of seeing the money disappear into some nebulous government compliance- enforcement strategy, $48 million has been set aside in a health and safety trust, and $80 million will be used to improve safety at existing mines. Finding positives in a mining tragedy is difficult, but this is certainly a major step in the right direction. While the loss of one life is one life too many, hopefully the next generation will learn from the 2010 coal disasters.

Steve Fiscor, Editor-in-Chief, E&MJ

As featured in Womp 2011 Vol 10 -