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Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster


On April 5, 2010, the day after Easter, a series of explosions rocked the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, Raleigh County. Twenty-nine men were killed, and another man was seriously injured. It was West Virginia’s worst coal mining disaster since November 20, 1968, when the Consol No. 9 mine at Farmington exploded, killing 78 workers.

The Upper Big Branch mine was owned by Massey Energy and operated by its subsidiary, Performance Coal Company.

After the Upper Big Branch explosion, Governor Joe Manchin called for an independent investigation, which was led by J. Davitt McAteer, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor. The panel determined that sparks from the longwall miner ignited a pocket of methane, creating a fireball. The fireball sparked a series of explosions that traveled for more than two miles through the mine. The panel also concluded that the explosions could have been prevented and that systems that were designed to protect miners—such as adequate ventilation in the mine—had failed. The report placed the blame on Massey Energy, saying the company operated its mines in a “profoundly reckless manner.”

A report by the U.S. Mine Safety and Healthy Administration, released in December 2011, came to similar conclusions. The report indicated that the deaths of the miners were preventable and the result of “intentional and aggressive” efforts on the part of Massey to ignore safety rules.

Virginia-based Massey and its president, Don Blankenship, faced a barrage of criticism after the disaster. Blankenship, who had led the company since 1992, resigned in December 2010. Alpha Natural Resources, also based in Virginia, purchased Massey in June 2011. Following the release of the federal report, Alpha was fined nearly $11 million in civil penalties, part of a total settlement of $210 million. Don Blankenship was tried on criminal charges in federal court in Charleston in the fall of 2015. He was convicted on a misdemeanor count of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards and found not guilty on felony charges. On April 6, 2016, he was sentenced to one year in prison, one year of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. He entered prison in California in May 2016.

In 2013 Alpha operated about 150 coal mines and 40 preparation plants, more than any other U.S. coal company. The company employed 14,000 people, including about 7,000 in West Virginia. But after coal prices fell and debt mounted, Alpha filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August 2015.

Read the report by the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel.


e-WV presents West Virginia Public Broadcasting on Upper Big Branch