An organization created after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia, which in April 2010 killed 29 people and injured two others, announced Monday it was awarding its first $10 million in research grants to projects designed to improve mine safety.
The Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health will provide research grants to 16 applicants, with two awards going to researchers at West Virginia University and one award each going to the University of Pittsburgh and to researchers with the United Steelworkers.
"It's a tremendous honor to be involved in a project that will help try to assure that these kinds of tragedies don't happen again," said Nancy Lessin of the United Steelworkers' Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education.
Although none of its members was killed in the Upper Big Branch disaster, the Steelworkers union has not been immune to tragedies in mines. Since 2007, their members accounted for 14 of the 137 mineworker deaths in metal and nonmetal mines, Ms. Lessin said.
The Steelworkers plan to use their $600,000 grant to fund a two-year study identifying hazards in mines and ways to prevent hazards, including practices that might prevent workers from speaking out about unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Federal investigators have said Upper Big Branch employees were intimidated or retaliated against to keep them from reporting problems.
The Alpha Foundation, based in Potomac Falls, Va., was born out of a nonprosecution agreement that emerged from the Upper Big Branch disaster. At the time of the 2010 explosion, the mine was owned by Massey Energy, but in June 2011 it was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Va.
Later that year, Alpha struck a nonprosecution agreement of about $209 million with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of West Virginia, the FBI and the Department of Labor. The agreement addressed Massey's corporate criminal liability but did not preclude charges against individuals.
Federal investigators have said the fatal explosion was caused by a combination of methane gas, the buildup of explosive coal dust and broken or malfunctioning equipment.
The agreement required Alpha to pay $46.5 million to the families of the 29 killed and to the two injured, to pay $34.8 million in penalties to the Mine Safety and Health Administration and to invest at least $80 million in mine safety enhancements in all its underground mines.
The agreement also required Alpha to put $48 million toward academic and nonprofit mine safety research, and on Monday, the first recipients of that funding were announced.
Keith Heasley of the Alpha Foundation, also a mining engineering professor at WVU, did not disclose the exact amounts of each grant, but said they were fairly evenly divided. Additional funding will be announced over the next few years, he said.
U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II, who two years ago announced the nonprosecution agreement made with Alpha, released a statement Monday praising the potential of the research grants.
"I want to put top-notch scientists to work on making mines safer," he said. "That's what these research grants do. They're an investment in the health and safety of our miners, and I believe they'll yield life-saving innovations."
That, at least, is the goal of two research teams at WVU.
Vlad Kecojevic, associate professor of mining engineering, and Jim Dean, director of mining and industrial extension, are both part of the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at WVU, and both will lead research teams funded by the Alpha grants.
Mr. Kecojevic said his team was awarded a grant of about $744,000. They plan to design a large-scale sensor network system to integrate information from existing safety devices, such as proximity warning systems for large equipment and tracking systems for driver fatigue. Combining safety-related data into a central system that can be tracked in real time should reduce equipment-related fatalities and injuries, Mr. Kecojevic said. The focus of their work will be on surface mines.
The other WVU researcher, Mr. Dean, is working with two research teams that have received grants from the Alpha Foundation. One team, based out of the University of Connecticut, will develop a comprehensive health curriculum for West Virginia miners.
The other team, which Mr. Dean will lead, will use what he said is a $410,000 grant to explore experiential learning when it comes to use of technology, such as proximity detection systems and machine-mounted cameras on mining equipment. His team will conduct workshops and technology training on a simulated underground mine in Morgantown, W.Va., to increase the rate of technology adoption and to make sure people using the technology are properly trained. Similar to Mr. Kecojevic, the goal is to reduce the number of equipment-related fatalities and injuries.
Mine safety research tends to be an underfunded area, Mr. Dean said.
"I think there's a large potential here," he said of the Alpha funding.
The grant awarded to the University of Pittsburgh will fund research into worker health in underground coal mining. Mr. Heasley said the research team is headed by Jeanine Buchanich, who is listed as an assistant professor of biostatistics at the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.