Saturday, April 10, 2010

Disaster, worst in nearly 40 years, likely caused by methane and dust; maybe by higher output

The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster has become the worst in the U.S. in almost 40 years, following today's announcement that the four missing miners were found dead in the mine. The death toll of 29 is the largest "since 38 perished in a coal-dust blast on Dec. 30, 1970, at Finley Coal's No. 15 and No. 16 mines on Hurricane Creek near Hyden, Ky.," Ken Ward Jr. and Andrew Clevenger of The Charleston Gazette report. "It is the West Virginia coal industry's worst workplace disaster since 78 miners died in the November 1968 Farmington explosion. In February 1972, 125 residents of Buffalo Creek in Logan County died when a coal slurry dam there collapsed and flooded their hollow."

Investigation of the disaster could take a year or more, but President Obama has asked for a special report on it within a week. "It's clear that more needs to be done" on mine safety, he said Friday. Today, he said of the 29, "What we can do, in their memory, is thoroughly investigate this tragedy and demand accountability. All Americans deserve to work in a place that is safe, and we must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that all our miners are as safe as possible so that a disaster like this doesn’t happen again." (Read more) The Mine Safety and Health Administration "remains fundamentally weak in several areas, and it does not always use the powers it has," Michael Cooper of The New York Times writes. The Times has short profiles of some of the dead. David Farenthold of The Washington Post profiles a crew of miners who died.

"All week, mine safety advocates and political leaders have promised detailed investigations and said they would re-examine mine safety laws and enforcement practices in the wake of the disaster," the Gazette notes. "Federal and state regulators had cited the Upper Big Branch operation repeatedly for ventilation problems and for allowing the buildup of coal dust," the Gazette reports. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship told stockholders in a letter that media suggestions that the disaster was caused by "a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded." Still, Frank Ahrens of the Post reports that the mine's production "had kicked into overdrive in the past several months, as the company strove to keep up with increasing demand for the mine's valuable type of coal, which is used to make steel."

"Officials believe that all 29 miners were killed by the incredible force of the blast, which experts say was likely a methane explosion made far worse by coal dust," Ward writes with Davin White in a story about the aftermath of the disaster in the mining communities of southern West Virginia, where most of the good jobs are in coal. It's the latest example of why Ward he is the nation's best coal reporter. For the best evidence of that, read his Coal Tattoo blog.

To donate to the Montcoal Mining Disaster Fund, go to the West Virginia Council of Churches website,

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