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On Anniversary of Coal Mine Disaster, Families Still Waiting for Answers

Apr 5, 2011 – 12:15 PM
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Laura Parker

Laura Parker Contributor

As a minister in Appalachian coal country, the Rev. Dennis Sparks knows more than he wants to about grief. He serves as executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches and has consoled countless families of coal miners who've lost husbands, fathers and brothers in an industry that annually kills 30 to 40 miners and injures hundreds more every year.

Sparks counseled families after the mine disaster in Sago, W.Va., claimed a dozen men in 2006, and he was there for the long wait when an explosion one year ago today at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners and seriously injured two. It was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.

As the families gather this week to remember the men lost at Upper Big Branch, Sparks said he is helping them find their way again.

"We all grieved together, and as we reach this one-year moment, all the grief feelings are rising back up," he told AOL News. "What makes it even harder is that the families are grieving on the one hand and searching for answers on the other. Some are comfortable with what the company said. Some are not. They are looking for answers, and those are real hard to find."

The full explanation of what happened at 3:02 p.m. April 5, 2010, is still months away. Twin investigations, one by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the other an independent inquiry ordered by then-Gov. Joe Manchin and headed by former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, are still incomplete. McAteer said he expects to issue his report in May.

Federal investigators in the MSHA probe have scheduled a briefing for June 29, on the anniversary of the day they were first able to safely enter the mine, according to MSHA head Joe Main.

A criminal investigation by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has so far produced the indictment of the mine's chief of security, Hughie Elbert Stover, 60, on charges of obstruction of justice and lying to federal agents.

The indictment alleges Stover ordered mine security guards to notify managers when federal safety inspectors arrived, giving them time to correct any violations before inspectors entered the mine. He is also charged with ordering the destruction of thousands of pages of security-related documents that investigators wanted to examine. The documents were not destroyed.

Massey Energy, one of the nation's largest coal companies and owner of the mine, is conducting its own internal probe. Bobby Inman, Massey's chairman, described the disaster in an interview with the Wall Street Journal as "a natural disaster," not a company failing. He also said the company's board of directors reviewed safety performance and found it better than average, but not "one of the best."

A mining symposium sponsored by Wheeling Jesuit University, where McAteer is vice president, will be held Thursday and Friday at the Charleston Civic Center and will focus on the prevention of mining accidents, safety and rescue, McAteer said.

In the meantime, little has changed. Efforts to tighten mine safety legislation stalled in both the West Virginia Legislature and in Congress. A bill by U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., was blocked by Republicans in December.

"Miners usually die one at a time, and those deaths rarely even get mentioned in the local newspaper," said Tony Oppegard, a former federal mine safety official and Kentucky lawyer. "Disasters like Upper Big Branch are infrequent, so there's a fairly short window of opportunity to convince legislators that something needs to be done. When Miller filed his mine safety bill, there was a lot of criticism; 'You don't know what happened.' But when MSHA's report does come out, all that momentum will have been lost."

Skepticism over new coal industry regulations was in evidence at a Senate hearing last week when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questioned the need for new federal regulations to reduce black-lung disease, which kills about 1,500 miners a year.

"Every regulation doesn't save lives," he said.

Yet questions have also been raised about whether the mine safety agency is effectively using the laws already on the books to enforce safety. The agency has proposed new safety rules that would prompt swifter enforcement for mines that show a pattern of serious violations.

The Upper Big Branch mine, which employs 195 miners, is 30 miles south of Charleston, near the tiny community of Montcoal. The blast hit at shift change, catching not only the miners working two sections of the mine, but miners who were leaving the mine.

Investigators determined that the explosion was caused by a small leak of methane gas, fueled by coal dust. They are still analyzing the source of the spark. Small methane ignitions often occur in coal mines and can be easily extinguished. The danger comes when too much coal dust accumulates.

"If you have too much coal dust suspended in the air, it's like being in the barrel of a shotgun," Oppegard said. "If you ignite the coal dust, it will go as long as there's fuel. So if you have a mile-long tunnel, that fireball will travel the entire distance. It can go as deep as the mine is and hit the wall, bounce back and start coming in the other direction. It will go wherever there is fuel."

The explosion was so intense it took four days to recover the last four bodies. Initial reports gave hope to the 300 family members who held vigil during the long wait that at least some of the four had survived. The Rev. Sparks waited with them, offering comfort. When word finally came, he said, it was a moment of grief he will never forget.

"There was such great anticipation," he said. "Every family I talked to that week believed their miner was one of the four. Grief does this to us. They all went through the week finding degrees of justification, why they know theirs is one who survived. They had the skills, they had the will to live, all these things. They would go through cycles within their mind, sometimes believing it, sometimes not. By Friday night, that all came to a head when the final announcement came: There are no survivors."

The families found some comfort, Sparks said, in the initial Labor Department report that the blast was so severe the miners had almost certainly died instantly.

Then last week, a lawsuit filed by Geneva Lynch, widow of Roosevelt Lynch, alleged that seven miners survived the initial explosion. Roosevelt was two miles away from the explosion and leaving the mine with six other men at the end of their shift, according to court papers. One of the survivors tried to deploy respirators and aid to Roosevelt and the others. The lawsuit does not identify the survivor, but Ken Ward, who covers the coal industry for the Charleston Gazette, identified him as Timothy Blake.

McAteer confirmed that some of the men had survived initially. Lynch declined to comment through her attorney, Michael Olivio.

Fifteen days after the Upper Big Branch tragedy, the coal mining disaster faded from public view after BP's oil well blew up in the Gulf of Mexico and the eyes of the nation turned to the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

In many respects, the pair of industrial accidents last April share similar backgrounds of safety lapses. Both companies are repeat violators of federal safety laws, records show.

BP has been convicted of multiple violations of safety regulations in accidents in which workers were killed. Likewise, Massey has a long record of citations, according to a Labor Department report.

In 2006, federal inspectors found that safety violations at Upper Big Branch had spiked. In 2007, the mine's managers were warned that it would become subject to more intensive federal supervision if steps were not taken to improve safety. In 2009, MSHA issued 515 citations. The same year, Upper Big Branch was cited with 48 orders to withdraw miners because of significant violations.

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"The citations ... have not only been more numerous than average, they have also been more serious," the report said.

University of Maryland professor Jane Barrett, who studied the two companies for a research paper to be published this spring in a Georgetown University Law School journal, argues that fines and penalties are not a strong enough deterrent to change corporate behavior -- and that company executives should face the prospect of prison.

McAteer does not go that far, but he said the responsibility for accidents should reach into the corporate board room.

"Mine explosions are preventable," he said. "We have mines that operate in this country year in and year out without a fatal accident. We know how to do this."
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