Alpha mine rescue teams show their commitment to mine safety
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
By Bill Archer
May 20, 2012

CUCUMBER — Rages Matney, team trainer and alternate on Alpha Natural Resources’ Brooks Run South mine rescue team can remember the moment when the months and years of mine rescue training jelled, and the team he was part of — Alpha’s Brooks Run South Team — came together as one.

“We were all together when we got called to Upper Big Branch,” Matney said during a telephone interview on Friday.  At the time they didn’t know it, but 29 coal miners had died in an explosion on April 5, 2010 at the Performance Coal Company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County — a Massey Energy mine.  Mine rescue teams were on the scene that afternoon, but it took four days to recover the bodies of all of the coal miners who died in the explosion.

“We were there the whole time,” Matney said.  “That experience really made us into a team.  From that day forward, we started putting even more effort into our training and into the mine safety team competitions we participated in.”

Joseph Wyatt, the briefing officer, the communications man on the Brooks Run South mine rescue team said that the entire coal mining community was impacted by the tragedy.  “For us, the greatest gratification from that experience was that we got those guys back to their families,” Wyatt said.

“Someone once asked me what the big deal was about being part of a mine rescue team,” Matney said.  “It’s like a team on Friday night that puts their pads on to play the game.  We get our gear on and we go out to do the job as a team.  We work as a team.”

Mine rescue teams from several Alpha Natural Resources mines earned high honors in the West Virginia Alliance Mine Rescue Skills Contest last weekend at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beaver.  Alpha-affiliated teams participated in Division II, for teams with three or more years of experience.  Out of the 56 teams in the field, Alpha teams earned the seven top places in the overall category; the top six places in the Smoke/Firefighting portion of the competition; the top five places in the First Aid/Preliminaries; and second and third place in Mine Rescue Field.

“That kind of commitment shows results in the mines,” Matney said.  “Joseph (Wyatt) works at the Brooks Run Mining Cucumber Mine.  They have gone close to 1,800 days without a lost-time accident.  That’s a long time in any job.”

“There’s no perfect mine out there,” Wyatt said.  “No matter what you do, you still have men going into a mountain every day to work.” In a matter-of-fact way, Wyatt rattled off the series of safety awards the Cucumber Mine earned during that period of 1,800 days without a lost time accident, but he added that safety in underground coal mines requires total focus every moment of every day.

“The key to that is being committed to safety,” Wyatt said.  “Alpha’s commitment to safety is great, and I really mean that.  That commitment starts with the managers and travels down to every person in the company.” He said that all employees of Alpha take part in the safe-process operations.  If any employee sees an unsafe and at-risk behavior or piece of machinery, they can tag it out, and the issue is addressed without repercussions .

Along with Wyatt and Matney, other team members on Alpha’s Brooks Run South team include their captain, Travis Grimmett; Mike Gosnell, the map man; David Boothe, John Tiptom Logan Hall and Tim Ford.

“About three-quarters of the men at the Cucumber Mine are from Virginia,” Wyatt said.  “I remind them of that every once in a while.”

Wyatt said that the new safety requirements put in place after the Sago Mine disaster in 2006 made a positive difference in underground coal mining as well as the emphasis on the importance of highly trained, physically and mentally prepared mine rescue teams.  He explained that by law, all rescue team members have to include both veteran and younger coal miners — all of whom can meet rigorous physical fitness requirements.

“Our standards have never been better in coal mining,” Matney said.  “When the federal law changed the percentage of rock dust content to 80 percent, it made a huge difference in safety conditions in underground coal mines.  Overall, some requirements are difficult to implement, but things are improving.”

Through actions and deeds, Alpha is demonstrating that it’s “running right” motto is more than a slogan embroidered on a shirt.  On April 4, Alpha, the company that acquired Massey Coal last year, announced that it would permanently seal the Upper Big Branch Mine out of respect for the families and friends of the miners who lost their lives in the explosion two years earlier.  Kevin Crutchfield, Alpha chief executive officer said at the time that the company’s action was also taken as a reminder of why safety is so important in coal mines.

“Mine rescue teams go above and beyond the call of duty,” Brian Keaton, Alpha’s assistant vice president of safety and health was quoted as stating in a press release announcing the success Alpha’s at the West Virginia Alliance Mine Rescue Skills Contest.  “They give their all whether in a contest or in a real-life incident.  We are so proud of the work they do and congratulate them for a job well done.”

Other Alpha teams that earned top honors in the competition included Rocksprings Gold, Kingston White, Southern WV CRE, Rocksprings Blue, Cumberland JC, Maxxim Shared Blue, Emerald Blue and Cobra.