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Mine Safety Questions Linger, One Year After Takeover Of Massey Energy

One year ago today, Alpha Natural Resources officially absorbed the troubled coal mining company Massey Energy, which had one of the worst safety records in the industry.

It was Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that was ripped apart by a powerful explosion in April, 2010, and multiple investigations blamed a corporate culture that put profits before safety. Twenty nine coal miners died in the worst mine disaster in 40 years.

As the Massey sale went through, Alpha was hailed as more responsible and more focused on safety. Thousands of former Massey miners and managers were trained in Alpha's "Running Right" safety program.

But, as NPR first reported last week, an unprecedented inspection blitz targeted 43 former Massey mines after another of the company's mines experienced a serious emergency underground that has similarities to a 2006 fire at Massey's Aracoma Alma mine. Two coal miners died in the Aracoma blaze. Massey pleaded guilty to corporate criminal charges and paid more than $4 million in fines.

Now there's new information about the incident last month that triggered the inspection blitz and it contradicts Alpha's benign description of events.

Citations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and released publicly Thursday say managers at Alpha's Road Fork #1 mine in Wyoming County, W. Va., failed to evacuate the section of the mine that was enveloped in thick smoke generated by a malfunctioning conveyor belt.

No evacuation took place until a federal mine inspector on the scene ordered miners out.

The citations also fault Alpha managers for fire safety systems that were not functional, for failing to spot and correct dangerous conditions during safety inspections and for failing to control explosive coal dust, a major factor in the Upper Big Branch explosion.

In MSHA's language, there were "unwarrantable failures" constituting "more than ordinary negligence."

MSHA was so alarmed by what it found at the mine that it took the extraordinary step of then ordering the one-day inspection blitz of former Massey mines in three states. More than 100 MSHA inspectors were involved.

Attorney Bruce Stanley represents the widows of the two men killed at the Aracoma mine and read the Road Fork citations.

"This was almost an Aracoma redo," Stanley said. "Thank God an inspector was on site so that the mine was actually evacuated."

MSHA coal safety chief Kevin Stricklin told Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette that "the conditions were similar to Aracoma and we should be alarmed about this whether Aracoma occurred or not."

Stricklin added that the mine "had smoke that was visible to the naked eye and production was continuing."

That is especially alarming to Stanley. "The mentality of production first is a hard one to break," Stanley said. "If living with the deaths of miners on your conscience won't do it will anything?"

Alpha spokesman Ted Pile says mine managers responded appropriately, despite the failures described in the MSHA citations.

"Mine personnel followed the proper evacuation procedures when they first sensed smoke from the belt," Pile said. "It was actually a textbook evacuation that we train miners to do through mine emergency response drills."

But the MSHA citation says an imminent danger and evacuation order was issued by a federal inspector on the scene "after it was determined that the operator did not withdraw all underground miners voluntarily when thick smoke was encountered and the source could not be verified."

Pile says Alpha may challenge the citations.

Road Fork #1 is operated by an Alpha subsidiary, Spartan Mining Co., and that subsidiary and an entire division of former Massey mines are managed by Charlie Bearse, who is one of several senior Massey managers given significant responsibilities at Alpha after the takeover.

Before the Alpha takeover, Bearse managed Massey's Sidney Coal Co. in Kentucky when its Freedom #1 Mine was targeted by the Labor Department for the first-ever attempt to place a coal mine under federal court jurisdiction. Court documents described repeated, persistent and habitual safety violations at Freedom that "are likely to cause one or more fatal accidents."

Pile defended Bearse in response to questions about his continued employment at Alpha.

"He doesn't have direct operational oversight of Road Fork," Pile said. "He's an excellent operator who has the best interests of his miners at all times. We don't have to justify his employment just because he was an ex-Massey employee."

The Gazette also reports that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin promised to "closely review" the MSHA citations for possible criminal violations.

Goodwin and Alpha signed a $209 million settlement agreement in December that kept the company from facing corporate criminal charges for the Upper Big Branch explosion, which occurred before its takeover of Massey. The settlement requires Alpha to conduct safety research and training and maintain a safe environment in its mines.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.