World and Nation

Dealing with the dangers of coal

Earlier this year, in the subterranean workplace of a southern West Virginia coal mine, methane kept building up because of a lack of fresh air. Odorless, explosive, this natural gas must be dispersed from where miners work, and yet it became such a familiar presence at the mine called Upper Big Branch that entire sections had to be evacuated four times this year alone.

Many of the miners suspected they knew a major source of the gas buildup: a coal shaft, unused for years, that passed down through several old mines before reaching theirs. According to a longtime foreman at the mine, who provided previously undisclosed details of its operation, the shaft was never properly sealed to prevent the methane above from being sucked into Upper Big Branch.

Instead, the foreman said, rags and garbage were used to create a poor man’s sealant, which he said allowed methane to permeate the mine, displacing much-needed oxygen.

“Every single day, the levels were double or triple what they were supposed to be,” said the foreman, whose account of the shaft was corroborated in part by records collected by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. The foreman, who is now working with federal prosecutors and elected officials investigating the mine, asked not to be identified because speaking out is not acceptable in the culture of his company, Massey Energy. Excerpts from an audio recording of the foreman’s remarks are at

It is not clear whether the coal shaft played a role in the explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine two weeks ago, a disaster that killed 29 miners, rattled West Virginia and, once again, raised questions about Massey’s safety practices. But with federal investigators saying they suspect that a buildup of methane and coal dust led to the explosion, the handling of the shaft seems a particularly egregious example of the mining practices that have set Massey apart from the rest of the coal industry.

Coal mining carries inherent risks. But the numerous and very public violations and fatalities at Massey-owned mines over the years may leave the impression that all mines are run this way — that all mines leave coal shafts open and fail to exhaust methane properly. They do not. A comparison between Massey’s safety practices and those of other operators in the coal industry shows sharp differences, helping to explain why Massey mines led the list of those warned by federal regulators that they could face greater scrutiny because of their many violations.

For example, less than 200 miles to the west, in a corner of Kentucky called Hazard, a unit of the TECO Coal Corp. operates a mine with the all-business name of E3-1. Like Upper Big Branch, it is nonunion. Yet E3-1 has not had an underground fatality since it opened in July 2004.