Environment Local News

MSHA Targets 43 Former Massey Mines in Huge Inspection Blitz

The Mine Safety and Health Administration targeted 43 mines formerly owned by Massey Energy for surprise inspections this week, as NPR’s Howard Berkes reports. The mines, in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, are all now owned by Alpha Natural Resources.

Berkes reports that the inspection blitz was prompted by a recent incident at an Alpha mine in Wyoming County, WV.

A source familiar with the inspections says they were focused on conveyor belts used to transport coal underground. The source is not authorized to discuss the inspections publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Environment Local News

Former Upper Big Branch Superintendent Charged With Felony Conspiracy

Federal charges have been filed against the former superintendent of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Gary May was charged with felony conspiracy today in West Virginia.

Gary May started working at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2008. He was a superintendent there in April 2010, when an explosion tore through the mine, killing 29 workers.

According to the charges filed in U.S. District Court, federal prosecutors say May and possibly others conspired against the country’s mine safety laws. They allege May gave advance notice of federal mine inspections to miners and covered up mine safety violations. They also accuse him of tampering with methane detectors, falsifying records and misleading federal investigators as to the amount of respirable dust in the mine.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin says charges against other Massey employees could be in store.

“Today’s charge is a significant step in the investigation of events at the Upper Big Branch Mine,” Goodwin said. “However, our investigation of those events remains ongoing.”

State of the News

Overtime Investigation, Daeschner’s Contract Not Renewed, FDA Ban on Blood Donations from Gay Men, Congress Debates Payroll Tax: Today on State of the News

Mayor Greg Fischer called for an investigation into the city’s use of overtime pay, and MSHA finished its investigation of Upper Big Branch and found assey to blame. We’ll recap and analyse this week’s metro news with the WFPL news staff.

News and Tribune editor Shea Van Hoy joins WFPL’s Devin Katayama to talk about this week’s decision by the Greater Clark County School Board not to renew Superintendent Stephen Daeschner’s contract. Then we’ll catch up on other news from across the river.

Laura Ungar at the Courier-Journal wrote extensively this week about the FDA’s ban on blood donations from men who are sexually active with men. She joins us to talk about the reasoning behind the rule, and why it seems to be continuously under fire.

Then we’ll catch up with the Courier-Journal’s James Carroll about the debate in Washington over extending payroll tax cuts, efforts to pass a spending bill, and the rise of Newt Gingrich in the GOP polls.

Environment Local News

Union Report on Upper Big Branch Explosion Faults Massey Energy, Suggests Evidence Tampering

The United Mine Workers union has released its own report into last year’s deadly explosion at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine. The report is highly critical of the way non-union Massey Energy handled the disaster.

The explosion killed 29 workers, and the title of the report instantly gives a sense of how the United Mine Workers of America views the disaster: it’s called Industrial Homicide.

After the blast, the UMWA was designated an official representative of coal miners in the non-union mine. In the report, the union predictably criticizes Massey Energy, saying equipment wasn’t well-maintained and safely operated. It also faults federal regulators for not shutting the mine down.

But the report does contain two new pieces of evidence about the explosion, which evidence suggests was caused by a methane ignition fed by coal dust. The UMWA report notes the specific placement of a curtain in the mine, which could have directed fresh air directly to a methane monitor. This would have prevented the monitor from detecting unsafe levels of methane and shutting down equipment.

It also mentions the presence of a clean, undamaged methane sensor from an area damaged by the blast. The report implies the sensor could have been planted after the explosion by Massey officials who were underground at the time.

Massey Energy was sold to Alpha Natural Resources earlier this year.

Environment Local News

MSHA Cites Three Kentucky Mines in July Impact Inspections

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has cited three Kentucky mines for safety violations—two of the mines are in Harlan County and one is in Pike County. Those mines are among 15 nationwide with a history of compliance problems that were targeted in MSHA’s July impact inspections.

Two of the Kentucky mines inspected are owned by Alpha Natural Resources, and both were previously owned by Massey Energy, before Alpha bought the company in June.

MSHA began the special impact inspections in response to the explosion at the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, which killed twenty-nine miners. Since then, the agency says it’s conducted more than 300 impact inspections, which have resulted in more than 5,500 citations.

Environment Local News

Government Faults Coal Company in Upper Big Branch Explosion

Federal regulators held a briefing today in West Virginia to discuss their investigation into the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration says the explosion on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in southern West Virginia was preventable. In a presentation, MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin outlined Massey’s failures at the mine, including a focus on coal production at the expense of proper safety measures.

“A section foreman was fired for delaying production for about an hour to fix ventilation problems,” he said. “One of the victims was told ‘if you can’t go up there to run coal, just bring your bucket outside and go home.’”

But the company also took active steps to hide safety problems from federal mine inspectors. Stricklin says Massey was keeping two sets of books—one for government inspectors, and another with a more accurate list of safety concerns.

“If a coal mine wanted to keep two sets of books, that’s their own business,” Stricklin said. “They can keep five sets of books if they want. But what they’re required to do is list all the hazards in the official books.”

Investigation teams have been in the mine for the past year, gathering evidence. Eighty percent of the dust samples found in the mine after the explosion were non-compliant, meaning there were higher quantities of explosive coal dust than allowed by law. MSHA’s findings point to the excess coal dust, combined with a spark from mining equipment, as the main cause of the explosion. The equipment was missing several sprayers, which are designed to mist water over the coal and reduce the risk of explosion.

A small amount of methane also contributed, but this is contrary to Massey Energy’s findings that a large inundation of methane and an ‘act of God’ were solely responsible.

Environment Local News

Alpha CEO Calls Coal’s Future “Bright”

Alpha Natural Resource’s CEO says his company’s acquisition of Massey Energy improves the company’s position in the international market.

Kevin Crutchfield said Massey’s vast metallurgical coal reserves were one reason the merger made sense for Alpha. During an interview with West Virginia MetroNews, he said he also expects to be providing coal for electricity to developing nations.

“The prospects we think for coal internationally over the next twenty years, both for the manufacture of steel and the production of electricity are quite bright,” he said. “We think that the demand for coal on a worldwide basis is going to increase between 2 and 2 and a half billion tons annually over the next twenty years.”

Crutchfield thinks his company is in a good position to provide coal to overseas markets, even if the United States moves away from coal-fired electricity.

“Despite our nation’s seeming resistance to continuing to burn coal, there are plenty of places on the globe that do want to power and electrify their nations with coal,” he said. “We think the asset position we have will put us in a nice position to serve those needs over the long term.”

With the merger, Alpha now controls five billion tons of coal reserves. 1.7 billion of that is metallurgical coal, which is in demand for steel production in developing countries.

In the interview Crutchfield also said he wasn’t yet sure what caused the explosion last April at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Federal investigators haven’t yet released their conclusions either.

Environment Local News

Alpha Dismisses Massey Energy’s Report on W.Va. Mine Explosion

Earlier today, Massey Energy’s former Chairman of the Board Bobby Inman released his company’s accounting of the causes behind the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine.  The Charleston Gazette has a link to the report. Basically, it discounts the report released last month by an independent team commissioned by former West Virginia governor Joe Manchin. That independent report placed a lot of the blame for the explosion on Massey, but Massey’s report supports the company’s claims that the accident was due to ‘an act of God.’

But Massey was acquired earlier this week by Alpha Natural Resources. And apparently Alpha was unaware Massey still planned on issuing their report.

In a news release from earlier today, Alpha has publicly slapped Massey on the wrist for their “unauthorized” release of the report:

“In Alpha’s view, a view it had expressed to Massey prior to the consummation of their merger, it was not appropriate to release any report purporting to contain Massey’s assessment of the cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion before Alpha had an opportunity to fully understand and assess the situation. “

The release also says that Alpha will be conducting its own investigation into the causes of the explosion, because it believes the families of the 29 miners who died are owed a final explanation of the disaster.

Local News

Today on State of the News

We’ll look at the week’s local stories, and meet WFPL’s new environmental reporter, Erica Peterson, who brings us analysis on the sale of Massey Energy and lawmakers’ recent remarks that the EPA is engaged in a “war on coal.” Then we’ll check in on the narrowing search for a JCPS superintendent and the release of – and reaction to – the Louisville Orchestra’s plan for reorganization.

Environment Local News

Alpha Acquires Massey in $7 Billion Deal

Massey Energy is no more. A vote today by shareholders approved the coal company’s acquisition by Alpha Natural Resources. The $7.1 billion merger means Alpha now controls the second-largest coal reserves in the country. The company will also control more reserves of metallurgical coal, which is in demand overseas to make steel.

The new Alpha Natural Resources will operate more than 180 coal mines and processing plants throughout Appalachia and Wyoming.

Bill Bissett is the president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which counts both Massey and Alpha among its members. Bissett says the merger makes sense.

“We don’t expect any real major production changes,” he said. “I’d also suggest that the footprint of the two companies is somewhat similar, which makes the merger a little bit more of a likelihood for both companies to join together.”

Massey Energy has been under regulatory scrutiny since the explosion last year at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners died in the explosion, and an independent report released last month partially blamed the disaster on Massey’s lax safety culture. Shareholders raised concerns about the merger, citing Alpha’s plans to retain several key Massey executives who have been implicated in the explosion. According to NPR’s Howard Berkes, Alpha will not be hiring former Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins. Adkins was supposed to co-lead Alpha’s “Running Right” safety program, and was the most controversial of Alpha’s planned Massey hires.

Within a few hours of the shareholder vote, Massey’s website was already redirecting traffic to Alpha.