Today is the second anniversary of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine near Whitesville. The devastating blast killed 29 miners and injured two others on April 5, 2010.
A lot has happened since the explosion. The owner of the mine, Massey Energy was bought by Alpha Natural Resources, Congress has worked to pass legislation to increase mine safety in West Virginia and across the nation and, so far, two Massey Energy officials have been brought up on charges. Meanwhile, four reports on what happened at the mine that lead to the explosion have been released by groups ranging from state mine investigators to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
Most of the reports agree that the blast was sparked by a long wall shearing machine that set off an explosive mixture of methane gas and was further fueled by an explosive level of coal dust. The fourth and final report was released only two months ago by state investigators. In March, MSHA released an internal investigation that showed the agency did not do enough in the 18 months prior to the explosion to prevent the blast from happening.
Just one week ago, the highest ranking official to face charges in the explosion, former superintendent Gary May, pleaded guilty to fraud charges. May was accused of disabling a methane detector and falsifying records. He faces up to five years in jail when he is sentenced in August. In February, former UBB security guard Hughie Stover was sentenced to three years in jail for lying to investigators and ordering subordinates to destroy documents. Stover is appealing the case.
In the midst of all the investigations, lawsuits and criminal charges the human element has not been forgotten. Plans to build a permanent memorial to remember the miners who lost their lives were made. A goal of $500,000 was set to fund the construction of the memorial to be built in Whitesville. Alpha Natural Resources volunteered to match any funds raised for the project up to $250,000. In October 2011, the UBB Memorial Group announced that donations and fundraisers held since the projects inception had collected $326,000. The donations haven't stopped either; the most recent was $35,000 from Joy Mine Machinery last month. Organizers stated at that time that they expect construction on project to be completed today.
The Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce will mark the anniversary at 3 p.m. today by laying a wreath on the lawn of the Raleigh County Courthouse. The Beckley Fire Department color guard will toll a ceremonial bell 29 times, once for each miner. The Chamber is also asking people to continue the tradition of wearing stripes and to turn out the lights in homes and businesses while observing silence for 20 minutes at 3 p.m. which was the approximate time of the explosion.