Alpha Foundation holds first meeting
Researchers from around the country gathered in Charleston for the first informational meeting for the Alpha Foundation, a mine safety and health organization formed with a portion of the multimillion-dollar settlement in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin led the investigation against Massey Energy, which was subsequently bought by Alpha Natural Resources, after the April 2010 explosion that claimed the lives of 29 coal miners.
That investigation, which remains ongoing, resulted in Alpha paying $209 million to avoid corporate criminal charges.
Goodwin said $48 million of the settlement was set aside for mine safety and health research.
The payment is the largest ever in a criminal investigation of workplace safety. The foundation is believed to be the largest of its kind in recent history.
"This is something that doesn't come along often, if ever, and may never happen again," Goodwin said at the meeting Wednesday.
The foundation's board of directors met with researchers Wednesday at Embassy Suites to learn more about what researchers are looking into. Goodwin said the meeting was not to "start doling out money," but to talk about the best ways the money could be spent.
Wednesday's meeting drew researchers and professors from Utah, South Dakota and Canada. Mining industry leaders were also on hand.
Participants included Joe Main, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration; Jeffrey Kohler, director of the Office of Mine Safety and Health Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; Dennis O'Dell, safety and health director for the United Mine Workers union; and Bruce Watzman, senior vice president of the National Mining Association.
"This is a great opportunity for people in the mine safety and health research field," Goodwin said. "They've devoted their careers to mine safety so they're very interested in what's happening here."
Topics ranged from disaster prevention and response to acute and chronic diseases faced by miners. Potential areas for research included black lung disease, technology aimed at preventing the build up of explosive gas and dust in mines, better communications systems and improved rescue capabilities.
"It's clear from the agenda laid out today that they're taking their time and working to identify key areas," Goodwin said. "There are a lot of critical issues and things they're looking at industry wide."
He said researchers are looking to improve the art of mining as a whole and to improve technology to make the job safer and more productive.
Goodwin selected three researchers earlier this year to serve as foundation officers. Keith Heasley of West Virginia University's College of Engineering and Mineral Resources; David Wegman, emeritus professor of work environment at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell; and Michael Karmis, professor and director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech, led the panel discussions Wednesday.
"The tragedy at UBB was a bitter reminder that we have much more work to do in mine safety and health," Goodwin said in a release. "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.
"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."
He said the criminal cases filed in relation to the 2010 mine disaster remain ongoing.
Hughie Stover, who worked as a security chief at the now shuttered Upper Big Branch mine, was convicted last October of lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy documents following the deadly disaster.
He was sentenced to three years in federal prison but has yet to report to serve his sentence. Stover, 60, appealed the conviction in May.
Goodwin said further investigation is "still advancing as quickly as we can."
He said he would like to see the investigations move faster but the matters are "broad" and "take time." He anticipated future announcements soon.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at email@example.com or 304-348-4850.