Alabama family to add wrongful death claim in lawsuit over home explosion

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Judge Reginald L. Jeter is presiding over the lawsuit filed by the Griffice family against the operator of Oak Grove mine.

Lee Hedgepeth, Inside Climate News

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here

By Lee Hedgepeth, Inside Climate News

BESSEMER, Ala.—A judge on Monday agreed to delay proceedings in a case against operators of a local mine while experts continue to investigate the cause of a home explosion that left a grandfather dead and his grandson seriously injured. 

The investigation is being conducted by experts in consultation with lawyers for the Griffice family—the plaintiffs in the case—and lawyers for the defendants, including Crimson Oak Grove Resources. The company operates a coal mine that was expanding under the Griffice home around the time of the explosion. 

“We’ve had experts there every day since [the explosion] working on the problem and mitigation of the problem, and we have learned a lot in the months that we have been doing that work,” Leon Ashford, an attorney for the Griffice family, told Jefferson County Judge Reginald Jeter during Monday’s hearing. 

Ashford said that given the death of W.M. Griffice from his injuries following the March 8 explosion, plaintiffs plan to amend their suit to add a claim of wrongful death. 

Lawyers for the mine operator have so far denied liability for the explosion. They argue that any remedies would be limited by Alabama law, which protects mine operators from some legal claims stemming from the sinking of land, known as subsidence, “and its effects” when the mine is operating in “substantial compliance” with permitting. 

The Oak Grove mine, located about 20 miles southwest of Birmingham, has been fined by federal regulators for hundreds of safety violations in the wake of the explosion, though neither state nor federal regulators have so far moved to stop its continued operation.

Longwall mining, the method used by Oak Grove, employs bladed machines to shear coal from expanses more than 1,000 feet wide, hauling it out of an area that can extend well over a mile. The rock ceiling, called “overburden,” then collapses behind the cutting tool, which can cause land surfaces above to sink and release dangerous methane.

The Griffices’ lawsuit, filed in the days following the tragedy, alleges that Crimson Oak Grove Resources caused the massive explosion that leveled the family home in part by capping a water well where methane gas had been found. Limiting the amount of gas that could reach the atmosphere through the well pushed the flammable gas through other cracks and crevices to the surface, eventually causing the explosion in the Griffice home, the lawsuit alleges. 

W.M. Griffice had feared something was wrong. In the days leading up to the event, he told family members he was concerned his home might explode, his granddaughter said. 

The aftermath has left those living in the surrounding communities of Oak Grove and Adger rattled, with residents pressing for answers in what appears to be an information vacuum. 

Despite these concerns, the Oak Grove mine is expanding its operations underneath residential areas, with more than a hundred homes expected to see impacts in the coming years, according to regulatory documents. The area’s community park remains closed due to mining activity. Residents must drive miles out of town to get fuel after local gas stations stopped pumping over safety and environmental concerns. A local church, its sanctuary undermined by the work, stopped holding services there until recently.

Mine officials and politicians have largely ignored residents’ requests for information and accountability in the wake of the explosion, people here say. 

Ashford said that those living in the community are right to be worried, particularly given how little is known at this stage. Gathering more information about what happened on March 8 is crucial, he said, but state and federal regulators haven’t directly engaged with Ashford or the Griffice family about the explosion or its potential cause. 

“We do not know the extent or size of the source of methane,” Ashford said, including whether it’s limited to the Griffice property and whether abandoned wells created pathways for the explosive gas to travel to the surface. “We’re addressing all of those issues, but it is incredibly complicated, and we do not have an agency—state or federal—that is weighing in and giving us guidance.”

The Alabama Surface Mining Commission, the state regulatory agency charged with overseeing some aspects of mining in the state, has so far been hands-off in its approach to the March 8 explosion. Kathy Love, its director, said in mid-March that the agency was “researching” what caused the explosion but has not said whether or when a formal investigation is or will be completed. 

In a later interview with ICN, Love expressed skepticism that the explosion could have been caused by mining activity, given the depth at which shearing takes place. She said her opinion was based on her experience, not on any particular information about the Oak Grove tragedy. 

Love worked in a public accounting firm auditing coal mines before she transitioned into a role at the state regulatory agency, she said. In the decades she’s been involved in roles related to the mining industry, Love said she’d never heard of an above-ground explosion like this one.

So far, mine officials have doubled down on efforts to cap wells in the area, a move that an independent mine expert has said may be dangerous. 

Methane builds up in coal seams as organic matter turns into coal, a process that can take millions of years. A threat to underground coal miners, the gas can also become a risk to people living atop mines, especially those that use the longwall excavation process. Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas, significantly contributing to global warming.

If a mining company caps wells without venting methane, the gas may get to the surface in other ways, such as through fissures in rock, and potentially into homes, said West Virginia-based Jack Spadaro, a coal mining expert investigating mine disasters for more than 50 years. 

Once inside the house, methane can be ignited, triggering an explosion, by something as simple as a spark from a light switch or a flame from a stove.

Lawyers for the defendants in the case agreed on Monday to a delay in proceedings while the lawsuit-related investigation into the explosion continues. 

Ashford said that he hopes any information gleaned from the inquiry can help inform residents who are still on edge about the mine that continues to expand under their homes. 

“I would have legitimate concerns if I lived there,” he said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to address… No one was prepared for this.” 

 

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