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Four Years After UBB: Families of Victims Say It Is Still 'Us' vs. 'Them' in West Virginia Mines

Jessica Lilly
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Four years after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch killed 29 miners and injured two others, an investigation by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin continues to examine the practices of executives at then-owner Massey Energy. The mine’s current operator, Alpha Natural Resources, has established Running Right, a leadership academy focused on empowering miners to address safety concerns.

But even despite  acknowledging these changes as a “step in the right direction,” some victims’ families say changing the an ‘us versus them’ mentality between miners, operators, and regulators will take time.

The Victims' Families Perspective

Since the April 5, 2010 explosion that killed his son, Gary Quarles finds comfort in a few country and bluegrass songs with which he can relate.

"Daylight or dark, in rain or shine. It don't much matter down in the mine. Where the tunnel's deep, Lord, the air gets thin. That's the way of life for the minin' man." "Coal Minin' Man" performed by Ricky Skaggs

Songs like this one supply a glimpse into coal culture, one that Judy Jones Petersen is also in tune with. She lost her brother Edward Dean Jones in the blast. Growing up in Wyoming County, she says several of her family members worked in the industry.

Credit Courtesy Photo
Edward Dean Jones

Although limited, the occasional phone conversations with her brother would be a cry for help. Petersen is a physician and Dean Jones’s son has cystic fibrosis. She remembers a father who wanted the best for his son.

"He was trapped in a situation of having to maintain his job, so he could he could maintain health coverage for his son, and the company—and the people he worked with and for—knew that about him," said Petersen.

"So they knew that, through this practice of intimidation, that they could force my brother to put himself at risk.”

Changing 'Coal Culture' Through Investigations Into Mine Accidents

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has worked to investigate and charge those involved in what he calls the coal culture. Goodwin’s office climbed the Massey Energy's executive ladder and charged David Hughart. The former president of a Massey subsidiary admitted to conspiring with other unnamed Massey officials to thwart federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors when they arrived on mine property before the explosion.  

Goodwin said his office plans to "leave no stone unturned" in order to get to the bottom of the investigation. Families hope by doing so, Goodwin's investigation will take him to the top of Massey Energy. They want to see former CEO Don Blankenship arrested.

'Come As You Are': Running Right Program Aims to Empower Miners

In February, the U.S. Attorney’s Office closed the Non-Prosecution Agreement, with now owner Alpha Natural Resources in regards to the investigation into the Upper Big Branch explosion. That agreement included building a state-of-the-art safety leadership program.

More than 10,000 Alpha employees have passed through the Running Right Leadership Academy's doors for safety training.

Credit Jessica Lilly / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

"We’ve been too guilty in this industry over my 41 years now of ‘butts in the seat’ approach--of reading plans, ‘Death by Power Point.’ First Aid was ‘here’s direct pressure, here’s elevation, and here’s where you put a tourniquet on,'” said Gary Frampton, Running Right's director of administration.

“What we’re able to do here and what Alpha’s enabled us to do is a hands-on approach,” he explained.

The Running Right facility located in Julian offers:

  • Eight classrooms named after coal seems
  • Hands-on training includes a mine simulator, mobile mine rescue unity, and a virtual reality theater
  • Supervisors determine whether a miner needs to attend the academy
  • The program also includes a system for miners to report safety issues on cards

Between 2011 and 2013 more than 1.7 million Running Right Cards were turned in. Despite the volume of cards turned in, some miners are skeptical of the anonymity.

Questions Over Anonymity and Intimidation Linger

Credit Jessica Lilly / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Last year, a miner working at Cobra Natural Resources, a mine now owned by Alpha, says the company retaliated after he turned in Running Right Cards.

According to a court document, Russell Ratliff argued that company officials could identify him based on the content of the cards because the information pointed to specific times when the issues occurred. He also argued that the company could recognize his handwriting since they had it on file from safety checks, and human resources paperwork. The company said Ratliff had a reputation as being a trouble maker and deciphering his writing among the cards was not possible. However, the Administrative Law Judge ruled in Ratliff’s favor.

Operators, Miners, and Regulators: 'Us Versus Them'?

Judy Jones Peterson says it takes time to change a culture and in the mining industry eliminating the “us vs them” mentality among the workers, regulators and operators is key.

“When there is no respect between these three groups then nothing is going to change. There’s no way that UBB won’t happen again. That has to change,” she said, noting that the Running Right program is a step in the right direction.

Prior to his work at Alpha’s Academy, Frampton worked for MSHA for two and a half years and argues he has a different perspective on the matter.

"I don’t know if I could say if it’s an 'us versus them' mentality but it sure portrays that at times," Frampton said.

Frampton said Alpha has not had a fatal accident in 15 months and the total reportable incident rate across the company by 31 percent.

Southern W.Va. Bureau Chief, Reporter/Producer, jlilly@wvpublic.org, 304-384-5981, @JessicaYLilly

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