CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three workplace safety and health experts will lead a research foundation formed by Alpha Natural Resources as part of its deal to avoid corporate criminal prosecution in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, officials announced Monday.U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who worked out the deal with Alpha, said the foundation will be led by Keith Heasley of West Virginia University, David Karmis of Virginia Tech and David Wegman of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.Under Alpha's settlement with Goodwin's office, the trio will decide how $48 million in funds the company must distribute for independent research to improve coal-mine safety and health."It's an unusual amount of funding to be directed to one occupational safety and health problem in an area that has traditionally been underfunded," said Wegman, who previously served on a federal panel examining black lung disease and is part of a National Academy of Sciences review of mine emergency escape practices and technology.The research funding is part of the $209 million settlement Goodwin reached with Alpha, which acquired the Upper Big Branch Mine from Massey Energy in June 2011, a little more than a year after the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners."The research and development component of our agreement with Alpha holds the promise of breakthroughs that will transform mine safety in the coming decades," Goodwin said Monday. "The foundation will jump-start innovation and put brilliant minds to work on the risks that coal miners face. We look forward to a future in which coal mining is as safe as any other occupation."Alpha, in a news release that didn't mention the Upper Big Branch explosion, said the foundation plans to host a kickoff meeting this summer where the directors will discuss funding priorities.
"This presents a tremendous opportunity to drive the latest developments and innovation in mine safety and health to the benefit of miners around the world," Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said in a statement.Five years ago, a National Academy study reported that far too few federal research dollars in the energy arena were spent on projects aimed at keeping coal miners safe and healthy. That study recommended an increase from $25 million to $35 million a year in federal spending on mine safety research."Health and safety research and development should be expanded to anticipate increased hazards in future coal mines," the study said. "These R&D efforts should emphasize improved methane control, improved mine ventilation, improved roof control, reduced repetitive and traumatic injuries, reduced respiratory diseases, improved escape and rescue procedures, improved communications systems, and research to reduce the risk of explosions and fires."Heasley, a WVU mining engineering professor, said the panel is likely to consider funding proposals that examine both safety problems that cause major disasters and everyday issues that lead to more common injuries."In a lot of situations, if you handle the everyday issues -- dust, ground control -- you'll handle the issues that cause disasters too," Heasley said.Karmis said the panel will seek competitive proposals from researchers around the country and that the available money should fund the program for about 10 years."This is a significant amount of money to stimulate some good research," Karmis said.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.