upper big branch
On March 23, 2010, a group of safety experts and industry leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., congratulating themselves on another calm year for coal and the 40th anniversary of the Federal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. The yearly death toll had dropped from more than 200 fatalities the year the act was signed to just 18 fatalities in 2009. It had been four years since the Sago explosion killed 12 underground coal miners in West Virginia, and the focus of mine safety, many thought, could finally turn from gas leaks and explosions to hygiene and black lung. A new era in mine safety had come at last. The fires and sparks that too often took the lives of the country’s coal miners were relegated to history books. Then, two weeks later, history repeated itself.
Mid-afternoon on April 5, 2010, the tiny mine community of Montcoal in Raleigh County was rocked—literally—by an explosion that would kill 29 men. It would be the deadliest mine accident on U.S. soil in 40 years. “I remember when September 11 happened, and if you’re down in this area it’s the same thing. You could feel it. You could just feel the ground shake,” says Michelle Allen of nearby Whitesville. Methane gas, set off by the sparking of coal dust, ignited the Upper Big Branch mine owned by Massey Energy with a series of explosions that twisted metal and turned safety signs into rocketing projectiles.
In the months that followed, three investigations by the coal workers’ union, federal inspectors, and an independent panel commissioned by the governor concluded a culture of profit before safety, a disengaged government, and a failed inspection system were to blame. Five years later the findings of those investigations continue to play out visibly in federal court. But are our mines any safer?