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W.Va. coal mines to honor 29 dead with stand-down today

MORGANTOWN -- Most West Virginia coal operators will honor Gov. Joe Manchin's request to cease production today, using the day instead to focus on safety training and maintenance.

The stand-down, intended to honor the 29 miners killed in the April 5 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, means that as much as 1 million tons of coal will go unmined today.

That could cost operators: They'll be delaying about $60 million worth of production and must continue to cover wages and fixed costs even as they stop moving the coal.

The West Virginia Coal Association, however, whose members account for about 85 percent of the state's production, said Thursday that no operator has expressed concern about either the lost tonnage or lost revenue.

"Everybody wants to do everything they possibly can to make sure we don't have any other accident at all, and especially one of this magnitude," said association president Bill Raney.

Virginia-based Massey, which is not a member of the association, said Wednesday a work stoppage is an appropriate way to honor the dead, but did not say if it would address safety issues.

Massey did say Thursday that none of the families of the Upper Big Branch victims will have to worry about missing a paycheck, paying a medical bill or sending their children to college. The company said it's meeting with all 29 families to ensure they understand the benefits they will receive.

Massey said the meetings are not meant to settle potential lawsuits, even though personal-injury attorneys are already advertising for clients and have tried to contact the families.

"There will be an appropriate time to discuss settlement options with the families," the company said, and if offers are made, the families may review them with counsel.

However, Massey said it hopes settlements can be reached without the involvement of lawyers.

Federal regulators have identified highly explosive methane gas, coal dust or a mixture of the two as the likely cause of the blast.

State mine safety officials are developing a plan to investigate the incident, but high gas readings have kept teams from entering the mine since the last of the bodies was removed earlier this week. Spokeswoman Jama Jarrett said teams might not re-enter the mine for another 10 days or so.

While the operators take a time-out today, Jarrett said state inspectors will begin a safety blitz of their own, focusing on high-priority mines.

Inspectors will look at electrical installations as well as methane and coal dust controls, including ventilation and the spraying of powdered rock to dilute explosive coal dust.

The coal association says many companies already had stand-down days on April 6, the day after the deadly blast, or on Monday, when the state paused for a moment of silence.

"Safety is of absolute importance," Raney said, "so they intend to honor that and bring proper attention to their support for the families and the victims."

Each mine will have its own plan for today, he said. Some will work on training and maintenance, while others will focus on safety refresher classes.

Janine Orf, spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Patriot Coal Corp., said her company will have multiple underground-safety activities.

International Coal Group employees will participate in safety talks, then work "on a variety of duties that focus on safety and mine maintenance improvements," spokesman Ira Gamm said.

All ICG operations in West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, and Maryland conducted a safety stand-down April 6 to undergo several hours of additional training that focused on methane risks, coal combustion dangers and other mining hazards, he said.

Consol Energy also will spend today reflecting on safety, said spokesman Joseph Cerenzia.

In 2009, Pennsylvania-based Consol produced nearly 32 million tons of coal from seven mining complexes and had about 3,500 employees in West Virginia.

Cerenzia said employees will attend safety refresher classes and be briefed on Consol's "Absolute ZERO" safety initiative, started two years ago in an effort to eliminate all injuries.

The company would not comment on any possible financial impact.

"As we've stated previously," he said, "at Consol Energy, safety trumps everything -- production, profits, revenues."


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