Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

First Mine Safety Funds Doled out Research Grants Follow Settlement in Fatal Upper Big Branch Disaster

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

First Mine Safety Funds Doled out Research Grants Follow Settlement in Fatal Upper Big Branch Disaster

Article excerpt

An organization created after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, which in April 2010 killed 29 people and injured two others, announced Monday it was awarding its first $10 million in research grants to projects designed to improve mine safety.

The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health will provide research grants to 16 applicants, with two awards going to researchers at West Virginia University and one award each going to the University of Pittsburgh and to researchers with the United Steelworkers.

"It's a tremendous honor to be involved in a project that will help try to assure that these kinds of tragedies don't happen again," said Nancy Lessin of the United Steelworkers' Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education.

Although none of its members was killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster, the Steelworkers union has not been immune to tragedies in mines. Since 2007, their members accounted for 14 of the 137 mineworker deaths in metal and nonmetal mines, Ms. Lessin said.

The Steelworkers plan to use their $600,000 grant to fund a two- year study identifying hazards in mines and ways to prevent hazards, including practices that might prevent workers from speaking out about unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Federal investigators have said Upper Big Branch employees were intimidated or retaliated against to keep them from reporting problems.

The Alpha Foundation, based in Potomac Falls, Va., was born out of a nonprosecution agreement that emerged from the Upper Big Branch disaster. At the time of the 2010 explosion, the mine was owned by Massey Energy, but in June 2011 it was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Va.

Later that year, Alpha struck a nonprosecution agreement of about $209 million with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of West Virginia, the FBI and the Department of Labor. The agreement addressed Massey's corporate criminal liability but did not preclude charges against individuals.

Federal investigators have said the fatal explosion was caused by a combination of methane gas, the buildup of explosive coal dust and broken or malfunctioning equipment.

The agreement required Alpha to pay $46.5 million to the families of the 29 killed and to the two injured, to pay $34.8 million in penalties to the Mine Safety and Health Administration and to invest at least $80 million in mine safety enhancements in all its underground mines.

The agreement also required Alpha to put $48 million toward academic and nonprofit mine safety research, and on Monday, the first recipients of that funding were announced.

Keith Heasley of the Alpha Foundation, also a mining engineering professor at WVU, did not disclose the exact amounts of each grant, but said they were fairly evenly divided. …

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