At Alpha, 'the old ways are being ushered out'

JULIAN, W.Va. -- Alpha Natural Resources employees and coal industry officials spent part of West Virginia's 150th birthday dedicating a new training facility the company says is another step in its ongoing reform of safety practices at Massey Energy operations it purchased more than two years ago."I want to be sure that, where lives and health are on the line, there is not one more thing we could have done -- not one more thing," said Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield.Crutchfield spoke during a daylong dedication event for the $23 million, 136,000-square-foot "Running Right Leadership Academy" along Corridor G in Boone County.Safety officers and mine-rescue team members provided tours of the academy, showing off classrooms, high-tech laboratories and an underground-mine simulation facility.The academy includes classroom space for up to 300 people, virtual-reality simulators for training on continuous-mining machines and other equipment, and laboratories for electrical, maintenance and welding courses.David Green, an Alpha mine-rescue captain, recalled his own family's long history in mining -- noting one death and one serious injury -- in explaining why the new training facility matters."To me, they're not just coal miners. They're my family," Green said of his Alpha co-workers. "These men are my brothers. I want the best for my brothers."Bristol, Va.-based Alpha was required to build the facility as part of an agreement in which U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin agreed not to bring corporate criminal charges against Alpha over the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Alpha inherited any criminal liability when it acquired Performance Coal, which operated Upper Big Branch, as part of its June 2011 purchase of Massey. As part of the more than $200 million settlement with Goodwin, Alpha agreed to install significant new safety technology, create a trust to fund health and safety research, and take other steps to improve safety practices, especially at the former Massey operations.Since the Alpha-Massey buyout, Alpha executives and coalfield political leaders have said the company's much-promoted "Running Right" safety program would reform practices at former Massey operations.During Thursday's event, Alpha officials generally steered clear of direct references to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, although some Alpha rescue-team members wore "29" cap stickers in memory of the miners who died in the April 2010 explosion.Joe Main, assistant U.S. Labor secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in brief remarks that, after the disaster, "it became abundantly clear that change was necessary."Main said the nation's miners "deserved better than the level of safety that existed" and praised Alpha for its efforts since taking over the Massey operations.
"With a new employer for the Massey Energy mines, Alpha Natural Resources, they were able to chart a new course," Main said.During a brief news conference, Crutchfield told reporters that Alpha has not yet finished cultural changes company officials said at the time of the merger were needed at Massey.
"We've made a lot of progress, but to say it's complete would be an overstatement," Crutchfield said. "It's a long journey."Later, during his speech, Crutchfield said Alpha has made "steady and notable progress" at former Massey mines, but has "not reached our final destination."We knew going in we had a big piece of work ahead of us," Crutchfield said. "A lot of things needed mending and it wasn't going to happen overnight. The old ways are being ushered out, and we're replacing them with a culture of safety and trust."Under the deal with prosecutors, Alpha was required to have the training facility operational by the end of this month.Company officials said 400 Alpha employees already have completed required annual training courses, and that the goal is for all employees in West Virginia to have gone through the academy by the end of the year. So far, though, Alpha doesn't have a firm timeline for opening the facility to other companies, a step that is required by the agreement with Goodwin.As of Thursday, Alpha had yet to submit a required six-month report to Goodwin on its progress implementing the nonprosecution agreement. The report was due by June 6, but both sides agreed to delay it. Alpha spokeswoman Samantha Davison said Thursday the report would be submitted by the end of the month, but that a specific date had not been scheduled.
Alpha and Goodwin's office had refused to release some details of previous six-month reports, including specifics on how much money Alpha has spent on new technology and on safety reforms at former Massey operations.However, Alpha officials on Thursday provided a few new details about some of the steps taken under the nonprosecution agreement. For example, new refillable breathing devices -- called "oxygen cascading systems" -- are in place at two Alpha mines and on order at a third operation, replacing self-contained self-rescuers. Unlike the one-hour SCSRs, the new systems can be quickly refilled with breathable air at stations located on the way out of a mine in the event of a fire or explosion.Also, each Alpha mine has at least one of a new generation of "explosibility meters," used to ensure that adequate crushed limestone has been used to dilute explosive coal dust underground.Alpha officials said they hope to soon begin installing more advanced continuous atmospheric monitoring devices that will measure carbon monoxide, methane and airflow in underground mines. The goal is to have the systems in place in all mines by December, officials said.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.
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