U.S. Attorney closes UBB non-prosecution agreement - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

U.S. Attorney closes UBB non-prosecution agreement

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Alanna Autler / WOWK-TV Alanna Autler / WOWK-TV
Coal miners say a culture of safety now exists at the company’s mines as a result of the Non-Prosecution Agreement the company signed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office after the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. Coal miners say a culture of safety now exists at the company’s mines as a result of the Non-Prosecution Agreement the company signed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office after the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.
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Editor's Note: The following stories were presented by Don Hammond, anchor/reporter for WOWK-TV in a series of special reports that aired Feb. 10, 11 and 12. His stories can be seen at wowktv.com.

Two years after Alpha Natural Resources signed a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S Attorney's Office, mining has taken a massive step forward, as far as safety is concerned. 

"Oh, Lord, have mercy, without a doubt," said seasoned coal miner Jeff Chapman, who works as a safety technician for Alpha.

Miners say they feel safer knowing an obvious emphasis has been placed on saving lives throughout the past two years. That emphasis has come in the form of $90 million spent on implementing innovative ideas and installing high-tech safety equipment in all Alpha mines, such as the new air flow monitoring system, which merges air quality readings from several systems under one master control in all 60 Alpha mines. 

Another big portion of the $90 million spent on safety has gone to the new virtual reality simulator. Before it was implemented in the mines, on-the-job training was less forgiving. A miner's first mistake might be his or her last. 

The simulator eases miners into how to handle potentially life-threatening situations. 

Alpha Vice President of Safety and Health John Gallick said the mines have added a lot of technical equipment and safety gear.

"Some of which was required by law, and some that wasn't," Gallick said. "That has added to our main goal."

Alpha also is in the process of replacing the old, self-contained breathing apparatus systems miners used with a new system, similar to what firefighters wear, which will allow miners to breathe better air in more adverse conditions underground. 

"Yes, when you have good safety at a mine you have good teamwork," said miner Adam Hall. "You have men that come in happy every day."

According to the workers, making the mine a more pleasant and safe place to work has a greater impact on the company's bottom line.

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Welcome to the most advanced coal mining facility in the world. Unlike anything even the most experienced coal miners have ever seen. 

This state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind training facility in Julian was part of Alpha Natural Resources' agreed-upon settlement to pay for mistakes Massey Energy made that led to the mining disaster at Upper Big Branch mine. 

Investigators determined Massey did not do a good job with training but Alpha bought Massey in 2011 and changed that with proactive measures, such as building the $23 million "Running Right Leadership Academy."

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Alpha Natural Resources has gone above and beyond the non-prosecution agreement by financing training facilities such as "Running Right." 

The Running Right Leadership Academy is a 136,000-square foot facility made up of four buildings. The facility contains, among other things, an underground mine simulator — a first in the coal mining industry.

Training at the academy is now mandatory for all Alpha employees, and the accident rate at Alpha has been cut in half since Running Right Leadership Academy opened in 2013.

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When coal miner Jeff Chapman started working in the mines, he says he had to "dig everything."

Chapman is a safety technician for Alpha Natural Resources, and he said the safety lessons emphasized at Alpha today weren't stressed back when he cut his first section of coal.

"Not saying it was pick and shovel, but it was pretty doggone close," he said. "I've rode to the section on a piece of belt being drug by a scoop."

Now that Alpha has fulfilled its obligation of a non-prosecution agreement that came after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, there is more than a light at the end of the tunnel as far as safety is concerned.

Miners say they feel better going to work in mines with new, state-of-the-art equipment that better detects methane and other gases as well as dangerous levels of coal dust.

"Since I have been with Alpha, since they took over, I never heard them say anything about how important production was and how important profit was at the end of the day," said miner Mark Elivs. "It was all about safety."

In addition to learning teamwork to tackle emergency situations, the miners also receive instructions now about topics that will help them survive the rigors of their work.

Miners said the "Running Right" culture is key to keeping the mine running the way it should be, without the threat of injury or death.