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Whitesville, West Virginia

Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial

A memorial in coal country commemorates the victims of an all-too-preventable mining disaster. 

On April 5, 2010, an explosion rocked the tunnels 1,000 feet underground at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. In the aftermath, the scale of the tragedy came into focus: 29 deaths at the hands of preventable corporate safety violations.

Two years later, the Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial was dedicated in nearby Whitesville, West Virginia. The 48-foot long granite memorial shows silhouettes of the 29 victims of the disaster on one side and gives a history of Appalachian coal mining on the other. Nearby there is also a bronze plaque honoring the first responders who helped in the rescue and recovery after the disaster.

Investigators had to wait over two months after the explosion before they could begin their study into its cause, due to high levels of dangerous gasses in the mine. The subsequent investigation into the disaster found that the tunnels had high levels of methane and coal dust in the air and lacked regulation-required ventilation systems. Massey Energy was accused of operating the mine “in a profoundly reckless manner.” The investigation found that miners who spoke up about unsafe working conditions were told to keep working or risk being fired. Also, the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration was faulted for being too lenient on Massey Energy prior to the disaster. Government inspectors found a total of 515 safety violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2009.

Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey Energy in 2011 and became responsible for their liabilities in the Upper Big Branch disaster. They eventually paid $10.8 million in fines to the Mine Safety and Health Administration and $209 million as part of a criminal settlement with the Department of Justice. Mine superintendent Gary May was sentenced to 21 months in prison for falsifying records and violating mine safety laws. The mine’s security chief, Hughie Elbert Stover, was sentenced to three years for giving false statements to the FBI and obstructing the investigation. 

Today the Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial pays tribute both to the human cost of this tragedy, and the resilience of coal country.