CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The former CEO of the Massey Energy says the company is not to blame for the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
“UBB was the result of MSHA’s ventilation changes and a natural gas inundation. It had nothing to do with any of the things that are commonly reported in the news,” said Don Blankenship on Thursday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”
During an hour long appearance on the show, he repeatedly criticized the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, the United Mine Workers of America and West Virginia’s media.
More than three years after the explosion that killed 29 coal miners at the UBB Mine near Montcoal in Raleigh County, what was the worst mine disaster in the United States in almost four decades, Blankenship defended Massey and its workers and maintained the massive explosion was due to a large amount of natural gas and not the result of a buildup of coal dust as several investigations concluded.
Blankenship said three factors contributed to the explosion.
“One, you’re cutting sandstone which, you know, puts you at the risk of sparks. Two, you’ve got a huge natural gas inundation that was unforeseen and not properly analyzed when it occurred in the industry and area in the past. And, third, you had a ventilation system that the air on the face was cut in half because of MSHA demands. That’s what caused the explosion,” he said.
Investigators with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded flagrant safety violations contributed to what they determined was a coal dust explosion, not a natural gas explosion. MSHA investigators said UBB was not properly rock dusted, allowing explosive coal dust to build up, thus enhancing the deadly blast.
Federal officials said they found evidence of only a small amount of methane that contacted with a spark from the longwall machine and dismissed Massey’s claims of a massive inundation of gas.
A separate independent investigation, focused on UBB, strongly condemned MSHA, but also Massey for failing to “meet basic safety standards” and concluded UBB was a man-made disaster that could have been prevented. That report said the explosion started with a spark at the face and was fueled by accumulated coal dust, because of improper rock dusting, throughout the mine.
“A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking,” read the independent report which said inadequate ventilation lead to a build up of explosive gases.
The investigation from the state Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training concluded combustible materials and gases accumulated due to poor ventilation practices. State officials agreed a spark at the face ignited a pocket of methane. However, the state investigation rejected Massey’s assertion that there was a sudden and large influx of gas.
Blankenship dismissed those reports, saying federal investigators were in the UBB Mine almost daily before the explosion to monitor rock dusting and other safety requirements. “Basically, the 29 coal miners that were the victims of the explosion are being accused of not rock dusting the mine, not maintaining the shear, not caring about their own lives or the coal mine and all that is insane,” he said.
He said he does now wish he had fought MSHA more on its ventilation requirements.
“It wasn’t until Obama came into office and wrote thousands of violations, took over the ventilation system and the management of the mine that we had the explosion,” he said. “I should have laid down in the road and stopped them, but I fought them harder than anyone in the industry, and they certainly are not doing the right thing today and they didn’t do the right thing at UBB.”
A mother of one of the men who died at UBB called into MetroNews “Talkline” and challenged Blankenship. “My son was miles away from the explosion, why did it get to him so quickly?” she asked.
“What happens, of course, when you have an explosion, the force of the explosion, even if the fire is not spreading, takes the oxygen, almost, out of your body. It’s like being where you can’t breathe and people that were a long way from it were impacted by the explosion which is so confined within the coal mine,” he responded.
He did not answer her question about why he has not cooperated with the UBB investigation.
On his website, Blankenship calls himself a “American Competitionist.” He started working for Massey Energy in 1982 and left the company in December 2010, the same year as the UBB Disaster, shortly before Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey in early 2011.