By Vicki Smith
A foundation with $48 million to spend on new research into coal miners’ safety and health has reviewed 160 proposals as it moves closer to picking winners by Oct. 1.
Chairman Michael Karmis won’t say how many pitches survived the first round or what they centered on. The Alpha Foundation sent letters this week to those with the most promising projects, requesting detailed proposals and budgets for review in August. Eventually, the pool will be whittled to 10-15 projects, and some $10 million in grants will be awarded.
The foundation also sent out dozens of rejection letters this week, but Karmis said review teams representing labor, academics and industry sent feedback in hopes of keeping those groups engaged and helping them craft better proposals in the future.
“In all the areas, we see quite a lot of ideas — new concepts or papers taking the existing concepts farther than they have before,” said Karmis, a Virginia Tech professor.
The Alpha Foundation was formed under a $210 million settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.
Alpha bought the former Massey Energy Co., which owned Upper Big Branch in southern West Virginia when a massive explosion ripped through its underground corridors in 2010, killing 29 men. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.
The settlement spared Alpha criminal prosecution and wiped out 370 safety violations related to the disaster but kept individuals on the hook. The ongoing criminal probe has already put two former mine officials behind bars, and a third awaits sentencing.
The agreement consisted of $35 million in fines for safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines, $46.5 million in restitution to the miners’ families and $128 million for safety improvements, research and training. Alpha agreed to invest $48 million of that in a mine-safety research trust, and the foundation was formed the following April.
In their first meeting last fall, board members said they want to fill in gaps and overcomer barriers to scientific research, not duplicate existing work.
Potential research areas could include black lung disease, technology to prevent explosive buildups of gas and dust, better mine communication systems and better mine-rescue capabilities. Industry groups also want the foundation to consider “soft research,” such as including safety and health management systems, risk management and leadership.
Karmis won’t identify anyone who submitted proposals because the process is confidential. But he said only academic institutions and nonprofit 501c3 corporations can apply.
“We got a wonderful array of universities, some of whom have a significant track record on health and safety, and some of whom are newcomers,” he said.
He said the newcomers are welcome because they can bring a fresh perspective to longstanding problems.
The non-prosecution agreement also required Alpha to build a training center, and it opened the $23 million Running Right Leadership Academy in Julian on Thursday. It gives safety instructors a place to create and control crises, while miners get realistic preparation for the day they hope will never come.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the lab employs some of state-of-the-art equipment that Alpha is deploying to its mines under the settlement, including a continuous oxygen system that replaces the belt-worn air packs miners have long used when trying to escape.
Mod-Air of Chapmanville designed a self-contained breathing apparatus that resembles a firefighter’s gear. It has a full face mask, a back-worn tank and stations where those tanks can be replenished.
The academy gives manufacturers a place to work out potential problems with their equipment without risking miners’ safety.
For example, Goodwin said, Mod-Air learned it needed to make connection hoses in various lengths because multiple miners would be using the oxygen station simultaneously. Feedback from miners also prompted Mod-Air to use magnets to ensure those hoses stay connected.
“The hope is that once Alpha deploys and embraces these various aspects of safety technology,” Goodwin said, “that will set a bar for the rest of the industry to reach.”