How Many Coal Miner Deaths Does It Take To Pass Safety Regulations?

Why the 29 who died at the Upper Big Branch mine were not enough.

Local coal miner Kevin Honaker participate in a candle light vigil held for the deceased coal miners.
Kevin Honaker participates in a candlelight vigil for deceased coal miners in April 2010 in Montcoal, W. Va.

Photo by Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images.

Before dawn on April 5, 2010, Tommy Davis left his home in Dawes, W.Va. for work. The sinewy man, who rides Harleys and hunts black bears with a bow and arrow, labored alongside his son, brother, and two other relatives at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine.

On that day, Davis would survive the worst mine disaster in the United States in 40 years. His son, brother, and nephew were among 29 who died in a massive underground explosion that investigators say was caused by Massey Energy’s greedy and abusive corporate culture.

Since then, legislation to reform mine safety and stop future serial violators remains blocked by deep-pocketed Big Coal and the industry’s champions in Congress. Rather than address major shortcomings in safety regulation, the coal industry instead funded a bitter campaign against Barack Obama, accusing him of strangling their industry with a regulatory “war on coal.” Although Obama prevailed on Nov. 6, chances are slim that new safety laws will be passed, because the House of Representatives is still controlled by Republicans who have so far blocked reforms.

Upper Big Branch showed dramatically that the true problem with mine safety is ineffective and insufficient regulation, not too much of it.

Nestled in the Coal River Valley, Upper Big Branch, known as UBB, had a bad rap for safety—one even worse than usual for cost-cutting and labor-bashing Massey Energy. In 2009, the mine was cited by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration 515 times for safety violations, nearly twice the national average. UBB was assessed a total of $382,000 in fines that year.

During the previous month alone, UBB had been closed for safety violations more than 61 times by MSHA—more than any other mine in the country. Known for being “gassy” for the prevalence of methane, UBB had a problematic air ventilation system. It was later discovered that managers kept two sets of books—one for themselves and one for regulators. When inspectors arrived at mine offices on the surface for surprise checks, their presence was quickly and illegally relayed to underground shafts via company radio and telephones.

The firm’s chairman and chief executive was Donald Blankenship, a tall, jowly native of central Appalachia. He parlayed an extraordinary gift for crunching numbers with an indefatigable work ethic into becoming Big Coal’s best known and most notorious corporate executive. He battled safety and environmental regulators, bankrolled state political candidates who favored the coal industry, including judges, and waged an intense public relations war against ecological activists, whom he despised and dubbed “greeniacs.”

UBB was of crucial importance to Massey because it taps the Eagle Seam of incredibly rich metallurgical coal used for making coke for steel. In the spring of 2010, the global steel industry was booming, especially in China and other Asian countries that were churning out skyscrapers, bridges, and high-speed trains. During the first half of 2010, metallurgical coal exports from the United States would reach 39.8 million tons, a 62 percent increase, although exports have fallen since.

As Massey struggled to catch up with the unexpected profit opportunities, Tommy Davis was simply glad to have a job. Unemployment was running higher than 10 percent in Raleigh and surrounding counties. Noncoal work tended to be at gas stations, pizza joints, or Dollar General stores. Mining paid upward of $68,000 a year, or double the average annual salary in West Virginia. “You might make 24 dollars an hour at the surface mine, but in a deep mine, I make 31 an hour. That’s 140 to 150 dollars a day more,” Davis told me.

Arriving at the mine that terrible morning, Davis hopped aboard a mantrip, a kind of low-slung car that carries miners and their kit: helmets; battery packs; metatarsal-protective, steel-toed boots; and self-rescuers—temporary breathing apparatuses used if the mine becomes smoky or otherwise short of air. The shift began with problems. After being closed for more than a day for Easter, some sections of the mine had been flooded. Another oddity: Air seemed to be flowing through the shafts in abnormal directions. Miners later recalled it being a telltale sign that something wasn’t right.

One miner who seemed especially spooked going to work that day was Gary Wayne Quarles, a large 33-year-old nicknamed “Spanky.” The night before, at a Hooter’s restaurant in Beckley, Quarles was morose. He talked to his friends about his feeling that “something bad” was about to happen at UBB.

For Davis, going to work was a family reunion. Of the 61 miners working the 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, there was his 21-year-old son, Cory, and his brother Timmy. Two nephews, Cody Davis and Josh Napper, also were on the job.

The trip to the working area took half an hour and transported the miners nearly five miles into the mountain to a longwall mining apparatus. Considered the most efficient and profitable method of deep-mining, the longwall is a massive and expensive mining device that runs on tracks 1,000 feet long, back and forth, ripping out coal. Its spearhead consists of two devices called shearers that are covered with ultra-hard bits and 158 water-spray nozzles to keep coal dust down. The shearers roar back and forth, up and down, a seam. Quarles was one of several miners operating the device.

When their shift was coming to an end, Davis and a nephew headed out and were about 200 feet from the surface when “I felt this wind and all this shit coming out—rocks and wood. I made it outside and was trying to get my bearings. I thought it was a major rock fall, but then I remember them all back there: my son, my brother, my nephew, and the others.”

A massive explosion ripped through UBB’s maze of shafts at 3:02 p.m. It rolled seven miles underground, turning abruptly at right angles, sometimes looping around and inundating the same spaces twice. MSHA officials believe that the blast was caused when badly maintained bits on the longwall shearer hit a slab of sandstone. A shower of sparks ignited a basketball-sized torch of methane. Water from mining equipment was supposed to automatically douse it, but the gear didn’t work and a miner had shut the water off. About 90 seconds later, the flame touched off coal dust. The extremely explosive coal dust was supposed to kept down by a layer of limestone dust, but at UBB, the machinery that sprayed limestone dust was old and malfunctioning.

 The coal dust conflagration fed on itself as it zipped miles around darkened corridors. It was so powerful that some miners were decapitated. Others were asphyxiated. Tommy Davis’ son, brother, and nephew were killed thousands of feet from the source of the explosion. Close to the source of the blast, Nicolas McCroskey, the miner who had had supper with Quarles at Hooters the night before the blast, was killed, as was Quarles. Rescuers missed finding McCroskey’s remains for several days because they had been blown up into the roof of the shaft. The rescuers had been looking down and to their sides.

On the surface, a sense of disaster pervaded the Coal River Valley. Several miles to the south of UBB on Route 3, the only road to the mine, Gary Jarrell was working the cash register at the 125-year-old Jarrell General Store. He noticed one ambulance, then two, then a fast-moving convoy of rescue vehicles. “Rumors were flying about which mine it was,” he says.

Massey officials noticed carbon monoxide monitors started going dead about six minutes after the blast. They wouldn’t call for help for another 15 minutes. A group from Consol Energy, a Massey competitor, heard of the situation on an emergency alert network and came. Traditionally, coal firms respond quickly with their own trained rescue teams regardless of whose mine it is. Yet after they arrived, Consol officials became so disgusted with the haphazard way Massey was handling the rescue that they feared for their lives and quickly packed up and left—an incredible statement of no confidence. “Consol made the call not to participate in operations,” says Lynn Seay, a Consol spokeswoman.

Finally, at 8:10 p.m., Massey announced that the blast was a serious event and set up a staging area at Whitesville, a scruffy mining town a few miles up Route 3. Terry Ellison, whose brother, Steve Harrah, was killed in the blast, heard about the disaster from friends via cellphone. By 7:30 p.m., about 1,000 people had already gathered in Whitesville. “No one called us. The company didn’t call us,” says Ellison. Patty Quarles, the mother of Gary Wayne Quarles, commented on the abruptness of Massey officials. “They would shout out, ‘If I call out your name, go over to Whitesville Fire Department and identify the body.’ That’s how cold it was,” she said.

At the time, Massey said seven miners were dead and 19 missing. It would be five more days before all 29 of the dead were accounted for. At one point Don Blankenship arrived at the recue staging area. He kept to himself as his company’s directors and lieutenants spun the story that the disaster was caused by a seismic breach that released natural gas. They characterized the event as “an act of God.”

Three independent probes would be scathing in their findings. A probe ordered by then Gov. Joe Manchin and another by MSHA ripped Massey’s greedy corporate culture for the deaths, while another by the United Mine Workers of America, which tried and failed to organize UBB three times, dubbed the disaster “industrial homicide.” Blankenship tried to push blame back on MSHA, but he was forced out in December 2010 with a golden parachute worth $86 million. Shortly afterward, Massey was sold to competitor Alpha Natural Resources for $7.3 billion.

Alpha was nothing like Massey in its corporate style. Its executives exude a worldlier, sophisticated air. The company has managed its image well by keeping on most of Massey’s 6,700 employees and re-educating them on safety through its “Running Right” training program.

Alpha and its sister firms, however, have an agenda—blunting serious mine-safety-reform legislation. Historically, major mine disasters have been followed by new safety laws. One such law created MSHA and toughened inspections in 1969 after a blast in Farmington, W.Va. killed 78 miners. In 1977, federal law finally got around to forcing reclamation of strip mines after a 1972 flood killed 125 residents living along Buffalo Creek in West Virginia. Another law following fatalities in 2006 forced mine firms to equip miners with radio detection devices to make it easier to locate them underground.

A far-reaching law inspired by UBB was proposed in the summer of 2010 by Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who died shortly after introducing it. It would have protected mine whistleblowers, made knowing violations of safety rules a felony and not just a misdemeanor, and held company directors and high-ranking coal-firm officials criminally liable if they knew about safety issues and did nothing. The Byrd bill would have helped stop serial violators like Massey Energy from continuing to operate unsafely by challenging every citation. It would extend to MSHA the same subpoena power held by other federal regulators. The proposal, later upgraded by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, ended up in limbo after Republicans gained control of the House in the 2010 elections. They blocked it under a barrage of opposition from coal firms and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Sen. Rockefeller told me this summer that he intended to work hard at passing the bill. With the House still in GOP control after the 2012 elections, however, that’s a long shot.

Big Coal’s strategy, meanwhile, is to let Upper Big Branch fade into memory. The industry is diverting attention away from safety by attacking Obama’s modest plans to limit emissions from coal-fired electricity stations, some of them a half-century old. In doing so, it disregards the real reasons for its declining profits and layoffs—competition from cheap natural gas and sagging Asian demand for metallurgical coal.

Coal firms still made Obama’s supposed regulatory severity a campaign issue and pumped millions of dollars into defeating him, more than double that in 2008. Alpha is a major campaign donor.

Alpha is also spearheading a sophisticated strategy that would block new laws while privatizing mine safety and making compliance with new methods largely voluntary. Last December, it entered into a $210 million agreement with federal prosecutors to pay out $47 million to UBB survivors, $35 million to cover Massey’s fines, and $128 million to raise safety standards at its mines. Of that, $48 million will create a foundation to research mine safety.

“It’s important to note,” Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia wrote in an email to me, “that the resolution between my office and Alpha concerns only criminal charges against Alpha itself. My office has full authority to bring criminal charges against employees of the former Massey.”

What isn’t mentioned is that as Alpha raises its internal safety bar through its settlement, other coal firms are under no legal obligation to follow suit. As for the new coal safety foundation, it isn’t certain yet what kind of research it will advocate or how it will be made applicable to the industry. One possibility is studying the resurgence of silicosis pulmonary disease afflicting Appalachian miners forced to breathe more rock dust as underground coal seams get thinner. Before, the major problem had been the threat of black lung disease from breathing coal dust, but mining machines are now cutting into more rock formations, releasing more silica.

The huge safety issues raised by Upper Big Branch and the behavior of Massey Energy don’t seem to get mentioned any more. Criminal prosecution has so far been lackluster. Only two low-level Massey managers have been charged and convicted regarding UBB. Business seems to be going back to usual. In fact, Blankenship is staging a bit of a comeback. After staying quiet for nearly two years as the furor over UBB subsided and his company fell apart, he has drummed up publicity by giving $300,000 to Marshall University, his alma mater. He has also started a website to blog about his remarkable life.