Alpha opens multi-million dollar new safety facility in Julian - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Alpha opens multi-million dollar new safety facility in Julian

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Alpha Natural Resources, one of the biggest players in the coal industry, has opened the doors at a mine safety facility it says is unlike any other in the world.

The academy, based in Julian, was opened to West Virginia media and other guests for a tour on Thursday. The facility includes classroom space for up to 300 people; a mine lab with 96,000 square feet of simulated mine situations and conditions; a virtual reality theater with a 3-D underground cut sequence simulator; a virtual reality lab with simulators for a continuous mining machine, roof bolter, scoop and haul truck; labs for electrical and maintenance skills training; and facilities and equipment for supervisory leadership skills training.

"The success of our company and industry starts with safety," said Kevin Crutchfield, chairman and CEO of Alpha Natural Resources. "The Running Right Leadership Academy is the culmination of years of planning and hard work, and we are proud to have brought this concept to reality. The scale and scope of the facility is the first of its kind in the industry, demonstrating our leadership and commitment to the well-being of our employees." 

The company was required to build the facility through a non-prosecution agreement forged between Alpha and the U.S. Attorney General's office. Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine.

Crutchfield said the facility is something the company "had in mind for a really long time" even before the agreement. He said that U.S. Attorney was very supportive of the concept.

"It is a lot of money," Crutchfield said. "But, a core value is a core value."

The attorney general is investigating the events leading up to the explosion of Massey's Upper Big Branch mine that claimed the lives of 29 coal miners in Raleigh County.

"The bottom line is this facility is going to put us in a position to prepare every one of our workers to go home safely every night, perform their duties and be more highly skilled," said Paul Vining, president of Alpha Natural Resources.

In addition to the academy, the company also established the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health, donating $48 million to that effort. In total, about $80 million of the $209 million settlement is dedicated to improving mine safety at Alpha mines.

The training complex allows miners to simulate conditions in physically recreated mines and in three-dimensional simulations. At the facility, miners can learn welding, operation of equipment such as a continuous miner and other day-to-day operations of coal facility in addition to emergency preparedness.

"Coal runs deep in West Virginia. It employs thousands of our people and contributes to the economic development of our communities," said West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in a statement issued by the company. "We need to ensure that miners return home safely after every shift. The Running Right Leadership Academy marks a major advance in that goal. We are proud to host this world-class facility in our state and believe that it will become a beacon for safety throughout the industry." 

According to Alpha, the company has invested approximately $23 million into the facility and development of the curriculum, which is extensive and integrates a broad range of subject areas including technical, safety and leadership skills. It is intended to train both underground and surface miners as well as office personnel.

"The Alpha Academy is an extension of Alpha's employee-driven Running Right safety philosophy, which focuses on eliminating at-risk behavior through employee observation and reporting," Crutchfield said. "Our ultimate aim is to further improve employee safety and regulatory performance so that we move closer to zero safety related incidents."

Crutchfield said that once "the bugs are worked out," the facility will be open to other coal mining companies as well.

Cheryl Stapleton, director of leadership and development, said the program is not yet fully staffed but currently employs twelve people.

"We're really tapping into a subject matter expert pool through our operations and production group as well as our safety," Stapleton said. Those employees are then employed as adjunct employers.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Secretary Joe Main was on hand for the event and said the Running Right Leadership Academy should be considered an important turning point for mine safety. He said that Alpha has done a good job of shifting its safety culture into former Massey operations.