The Story Behind the 25 West Virginia Coal Miner Deaths

A company with a troubled record and a profession full of risk

This article is from the archive of our partner .

A mine explosion in the West Virginia community of Montcoal has killed 25 mine workers, making it the deadliest mining accident in 25 years. Four miners are still trapped in "dire" conditions. The accident occurred in the Upper Big Branch Mine, owned by energy company Massey Energy, which has a history of safety violations.

  • What Happened?  New York Magazine's Josh Duboff writes, "A United Workers official said the current hypothesis is that the explosion was the result of a methane gas build-up in a 'sealed off' section of the mine, though this theory hasn’t yet been confirmed by state or federal authorities." The built-up methane could have exploded if it was lit by even a spark.
  • West Virginia's 'Sadness' and 'Glory'  West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller tells Rachel Maddow, "this is something that is in the sadness of all the glory of West Virginia characteristics, fighting and climbing hills all the time, this is -- this is the tragic part." He says, "It's very emotional, very powerful, very awful -- and finally, very Appalachian."
It's not unusual for bituminous coal to be saturated with methane, also known as natural gas. In the west, oil and gas companies take advantage of this fact to produce natural gas by drilling into coal beds. In underground mines, this methane is no longer a benefit. In these mines the damp face of the coal may literally bubble and hiss with escaping gas. So long as the percentage of methane stays below around 5%, danger is not too severe. For that reason, mines carry out regular inspections and monitor the level of gas. Walls are built inside the mine to route air through different areas to see that the working areas of the mine never come close to the danger zone. Once it reaches the critical percentage, methane laden air becomes explosive. Today that system of inspection and ventilation failed.
  • This Mine's Terrible Record  The New York Times' Ian Urbina reports, "For at least six of the past 10 years, federal records indicate, the Upper Big Branch mine has recorded an injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations. The records also show that the mine had 458 violations in 2009, with a total of $897,325 in safety penalties assessed against it last year. It has paid $168,393 in safety penalties"
  • Don't Blame the Mining Corp  The Moderate Voice's Patrick Edaburn cautions, "It’s easy to law blame on the mine owners but the fact is there are simply inherent dangers to mining with the accumulation of explosive gases. I do hope though there will be a complete investigation after the rescue operation is complete."
  • CEO Is 'Comic Book' 'Villain'  Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson profiled Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in January as one of the top "climate killers":
The country’s highest-paid coal executive, Blankenship is a villain ripped straight from the comic books: a jowly, mustache-sporting, union-busting coal baron who uses his fortune to bend politics to his will. He recently financed a $3.5 million campaign to oust a state Supreme Court justice who frequently ruled against his company, and he hung out on the French Riviera with another judge who was weighing an appeal by Massey. "Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office," Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia once observed. "He would be twice as accountable and half as feared." On the national level, Blankenship enjoys a position of influence on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has led the fight to kill climate legislation
  • The Danger of Mine Rescues  MSNBC's Rachel Maddow discusses the risks and challenges with Tony Oppegard, a Clinton-era mining safety official:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.