UPDATE 10/10/12 @ 3:10 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP & WSAZ) -- A mine health and safety panel created by Alpha Natural Resources' settlement with federal prosecutors over the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster aims to focus on big projects, not incremental ones.
The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health convened Wednesday in Charleston to discuss priorities for the $48 million it has to spend.
The Associated Press says it plans to make recommendations by June 2013.
Foundation President and Virginia Tech professor Michael Karmis says the goal is to use the money in six to eight years.
The mission for the non-profit, independent organization is to improve mine health and safety through funding projects by qualified academic institutions, not-for-profit entities and individuals associated with those entities, according to a spokesperson. Alpha will contribute a total of $48 million to the foundation. The foundation will be run by three mining experts, including former SME President Michael Karmis.
Massey Energy owned the UBB mine at the time of the disaster. Alpha purchased Massey and then created the foundation.
On the two-year anniversary, people gathered at Whitesville Elementary School for a candlelight vigil and walk through town.
“And it just seems like it was yesterday. It doesn't get any better. It gets worse as the days go by," Nancy Long said.
"I don't think the community will ever be the same," Darlene Carpenter said.
Some community members were reluctant to hold a memorial service again this year, not wanting to relive the emotions of the disaster again.
But for some people, the pain of the loss has never gone away.
“You feel the absence and you know, especially when you go past the mine where everything happened, you just feel that sense of loss. And, I don't think it is ever going to go away," Carpenter said.
Dave Lambert lost some friends in the disaster.
Since then: he's turned his pickup truck into a work of art, having various designs painted on to it. It’s a new way to keep the memories alive, as painful as they may be.
Lambert says he hopes to have that truck finished in time for the third anniversary of the disaster.
Eventually, he'd like to have it displayed in a museum.
"They were good men, and they were great coal miners. And, I loved every one of them," Lambert said.
But even through the pain and the doubt over what's ahead, there's hope these miners are at peace.
"If god was to appear before me right now, I'd have to say I believe all 29 miners made it into heaven," Long said.
Methane and coal dust fueled the blast at the former Massey Energy mine on April 5, 2010.
The worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades has since led to a $210 million settlement between the Department of Justice and the mine's new owner, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
Two employees have pleaded guilty to or been convicted of federal charges, and a criminal probe continues.
Wreath-laying ceremonies are scheduled Thursday outside the state Capitol in Charleston and at the Raleigh County Courthouse.
Meanwhile, the mine's new owner has announced it will permanently seal the mine.
"As we remember the terrible events that took place at the Upper Big Branch mine two years ago today, let us continue to keep the families of the victims in our hearts and our prayers.
"Tomorrow, we can take up our conversations about how to improve mine safety and keep another disaster like this from happening ever again. As important as that is, today is a day for us to pause and think about the families.
"They have suffered more than most of us can imagine, and the pain of losing their loved ones is something that will be with them every single day. They have a hole in their hearts that can never be fully healed, but through continued love and prayers from all of us, we can hope they may eventually find some measure of peace."
Congresswoman Shelley Moore Captio released the following statement on the two year anniversary of the UBB mine explosion:
“The mining industry is an indispensible part of our state both economically and culturally. For generations, our friends and family have worked in the mines, and we take great pride in knowing that their hard work helps power America. When tragedy strikes and miners are killed, it truly affects us all. My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the 29 miners killed in the explosion two years ago.
“Mining is a tough and often dangerous profession; however there is no reason for any miner to be unnecessarily put in excessively dangerous situations. Analysis and investigations over the past two years have revealed the devastating reality that the UBB explosion could have been prevented. I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure laws and rules allow for the safest work environment possible. Mine safety is not a partisan issue, and I trust that Members on both sides of the aisle are as committed as I am to seeing mine safety legislation moved soon.”
Bill Maloney released the following statement regarding the second anniversary of the UBB mining accident:
"What occurred two years ago today at Upper Big Branch was a tragedy that can never happen again. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families and friends of those who were lost. I spent a career drilling ventilation shafts to make mines safer and help prevent these disasters. The helpless feeling I had that day can't begin to match the grief of those who lost a loved one.
"My experience helping to rescue 33 trapped miners in Chile changed my life. It was a reminder that if you use your life experience to help others, you can accomplish great things.
"We must ensure that the men who lost their lives two year ago did not perish in vain. It inspired me to be involved in trying to make a difference, first in Chile and now on my next mission. We hope others are similarly inspired to make a difference because leadership by example is the best kind."
Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the mine when it bought Massey last summer, announced Wednesday it will use concrete to seal large tunnels miners use to enter the Upper Big Branch mine.
Also Wednesday, the mother and siblings of one of those killed sued former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship and eight others, calling them responsible for the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in decades.
Blankenship, who has retired, did not immediately respond to efforts to get his comment.
The lawsuit does not target Massey or Alpha Natural Resources.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration posted the report online Tuesday after a private briefing with relatives of the 29 miners killed in the nation's worst coal mining disaster in four decades.
The report acknowledges multiple failures by field staff in MSHA's largest region, southern West Virginia's District 4. It also said their effectiveness was compromised by internal communication problems and by federal budget cuts that had created staffing shortages, inexperience and a lack of sufficient training and managerial oversight.
Although MSHA has made significant improvements in the past two years, the report said it's not enough and contains about 20 pages of detailed, technical recommendations for regulatory and administrative changes.
"More must be done to protect the health and safety of the nation's miners," it said.
MSHA director Joe Main said he takes the findings seriously and praised the review team for identifying systemic breakdowns.
"We can't just do internal reviews. We have to fix the problems," he said. "We take responsibility for the agency's actions here. We have an obligation to fix these things, and yes, we're going to do that."
While the report focuses on systemic failures, Main said he will review whether administrative actions should also be taken against individuals. But he said blame for the disaster continues to rest squarely with former mine owner, Massey Energy, bought last summer by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
Four investigations have concluded the blast was sparked by worn and broken equipment, fueled by a deadly buildup of methane and coal dust, and allowed to spread because of clogged and broken water sprayers.
MSHA investigators found Massey made "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to hide problems and throw off inspectors, even falsifying safety records. Managers also alerted miners when inspectors arrived, allowing time to disguise or temporarily fix dangerous conditions.
The former superintendent has been charged with conspiracy to commit fraud and is cooperating in a Department of Justice investigation. A former security chief, meanwhile, has been sentenced to three years in prison for lying to investigators and attempting to destroy records.
The internal review said MSHA inspectors consistently failed to identify problems with accumulations of explosive coal dust and deviations from ventilation and roof control plans. It also said they failed to use the operator's examination books to determine whether hazards had been corrected.
It noted those inspectors failed to identify 10 safety violations that MSHA's accident investigation team later determined had contributed to the blast. In some cases, they didn't recognize hazards, the report said. In others, they just didn't inspect the areas where they existed.
Although inspectors wrote a total of 684 violations in the 18 months before the blast, the report said they failed to act on eight that could have been deemed "flagrant," the most serious designation. They also failed to conduct special investigations on at least six occasions to determine whether managers knowingly violated safety standards.
The report, conducted by MSHA employees outside District 4, found that "inadequate direction training and supervision" was as much a problem as inexperienced inspectors.
But it tempered the criticism, noting that MSHA's messages were not communicated consistently, resulting in "unclear, redundant and conflicting instructions" to inspectors.
Main, who took over the agency in October 2009, said MSHA had a centralized process for communicating policies until 2002. It is now virtually impossible for field staff to know about the 199 policies the agency has adopted since 2004, he said.
"There was an overload, to a certain extent," Main said. "Depending on when you were hired and where you were trained, you may or may not have received some of those instructions."
MSHA is currently rewriting its inspector manual, consolidating and clarifying the policies. It's also overhauling its training programs.
At more than 200 pages, plus appendices, the internal review is more comprehensive than similar agency appraisals done after five mine disasters since 2001.
As in this one, each review concluded that MSHA employees had done incomplete or inadequate inspections, that inspectors had inadequate supervision and direction, and that inspectors failed to identify the mine operator's deviation from approved mining plans.
"There's a lot of things in this report that goes deep into the weeds to figure out what the problems are and how to fix it, so it looks worse than other internal reviews," Main said. "But this is something we needed to do."
“While MSHA has begun to take corrective actions, administrative action alone will not make our mines as safe as they should be,” Rockefeller continued. “We need to pass my comprehensive mine safety legislation in order to give MSHA additional enforcement authority, to provide whistleblower protections, to require routine independent accident investigations, and to increase criminal penalties. A small group of my colleagues are blocking comprehensive mine safety reform for reasons that only they can explain. It’s way past time for Congress to pass it and give our coal miners the protection they deserve and justice demands.”
U.S. Representative Nick Rahall released the following statement today:
“The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s internal review, conducted as required after the disaster at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, paints a distressing picture of long-running, severely flawed agency practices that amount to an indelible black mark.
“MSHA cannot be excused for the lapses in enforcement identified in this report, but neither can Massey hide behind this review as an excuse for its own blatant flouting of the law and callous disregard for the welfare of its own employees. If anything, this report is an argument for more monitoring of troubled mines, not less, and for stricter oversight of lax mine practices, not a freer hand.
“MSHA has already begun taking corrective actions and we must insist that the agency diligently and consistently pursue those measures and eliminate deficiencies. Miners’ lives depend on that.
“Meanwhile, I will continue to do all that I can in support of the sustained level of budgetary and human resources needed to enable MSHA to fully conduct its essential mission and I will keep right on pressing for passage of meaningful mine safety legislation that will address the tragic lessons learned at UBB.“
The United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement today:
"The UMWA has always believed that three key factors are necessary in order for a mine to be a safe workplace: A mine operator that is willing to follow mine safety laws, mine safety enforcement agencies that are willing to strictly and consistently enforce those laws, and a workforce that is empowered to speak out on its own behalf without fear of retribution. None of these elements were present at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, with tragic results.
"We already knew that Massey Energy willfully operated that mine in an unsafe manner. We also knew that the nonunion workforce there feared for their jobs if they spoke up and said anything about the unsafe conditions they observed at that mine. The report released today of the internal review undertaken by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) of its own actions illustrates the many shortcomings of that agency with respect to enforcing the law at UBB.
"Required inspections were not completed. Logbooks where critical information was supposed to be recorded about the conditions of the mine were not examined. MSHA District 4 supervisory personnel did not follow up on what were clearly flagrant violations of the law. These and many other failures allowed Massey to continue to get away with violating the law and putting its employees in danger every single day. April 5, 2010 was one day too many.
"The report indicates that the inspectors who were tasked with working at UBB were new and inexperienced. Many had not even completed all their training. This is a nationwide issue at MSHA, the result of years of neglect and indifference by the Bush administration. But frankly, that's still no excuse for what occurred at UBB. And it will provide no solace to the families of the 29 miners who lost their lives there.
"I am encouraged that Assistant Secretary Joe Main made the extraordinary decision to take a deeper than normal look at the systemic failures of the agency, so that they can be addressed. There is clearly much work to do in order to bring the agency up to the standards miners have a right to expect, and I believe Mr. Main has identified what needs to be done and is on the right path. The UMWA stands ready to do all we can to help in that effort. But we also believe that it is incumbent on Congress to provide him with the tools he needs to get the job done."
The Mine Safety and Health Administration will discuss its findings privately with victims' families in Beaver, then post the document online later in the morning.
Many relatives and several investigation reports have criticized both state and federal regulators for failing to prevent the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades.
MSHA officials insist that inspectors used the tools they had and were trying to correct problems. They shut the mine down 48 times in the year before the blast but let it reopen when problems were fixed.
MSHA also insists that Massey Energy could have prevented the blast with proper safety inspections and maintenance.
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