CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A mine health and safety panel that grew out of Alpha Natural Resources' settlement with federal prosecutors over the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster aims to focus on big projects, not incremental ones.
The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health convened for the first time Wednesday in Charleston to discuss how to set priorities for the $48 million it has to spend. President Michael Karmis, a Virginia Tech professor, said he wants to fill in gaps and overcome barriers, not duplicate existing work.
The State Journal says the foundation plans to make formal recommendations by June 2013.
To succeed, it will have to look at the leading causes of death in the nation's mines, said Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joe Main.
"In the past -- the recent past -- our country has had to look at progress in other countries to solve some of our own problems,'' he said.
Potential areas for research include black lung disease, technology to prevent explosive buildups of gas and dust, better mine communication systems and better mine-rescue capabilities.
Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association urged the foundation to also consider "soft research,'' such as including safety and health management systems, risk management, leadership and culture.
While technology has helped improve safety and health, Watzman said, "in our view, technology alone is not enough to reach the goal of zero injuries.''
But Randy Harris of the West Virginia Office of Miners Health Safety and Training urged the foundation to look for practical solutions, not theoretical studies.
"If research doesn't result in a product being sold or a procedure being implemented, that does not improve safety,'' Harris said. "It's only an intellectual exercise. You haven't really accomplished anything.''
The foundation was created in April under a $210 million settlement with Virginia-based Alpha that spared the company criminal prosecution in the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades. The agreement also requires Alpha to spend $80 million to improve safety at all of its mines with the latest technology.
The April 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch near Montcoal killed 29 men and has spawned two criminal prosecutions so far.
"The tragedy at UBB was a bitter reminder that we have much more work to do in mine safety and health,'' said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin.
"The goal of the foundation is to make sure our best and brightest minds are working on mine safety and have the resources they need,'' he said. "If we can accomplish that, we'll see breakthroughs that will transform mining in the years ahead. We want a future where mining is as safe as any other job.'' The panel was chosen by Alpha and approved by Goodwin's office.