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Massey official 'mystified' by mine disaster

 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy officials said Monday that safety checks revealed no methane buildup or ventilation problems at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine just prior to the explosion that killed 29 miners three weeks ago.

"There was no evidence of a dangerous condition," said Massey board member Stanley C. Suboleski. "I'm mystified at what occurred at the mine on April 5."

Suboleski joined Massey CEO Don Blankenship and two other company board members, Bobby Inman and Robert Foglesong, for a Charleston news conference Monday morning, one day after a public memorial for the miners killed at Upper Big Branch.

Massey officials used the event to tout benefits they say the company is offering the disaster victims' families and to try to combat continuing media coverage focused on the Richmond, Va.-based company's safety record.

"We have many questions, and we know our stakeholders -- all those who care about Massey Energy -- do as well," the company said in an open letter released just before the press event. "With the immediate emergency of the accident over, we know it is time to report to you what Massey Energy is doing, and will do, in the aftermath of this tragedy."

Among other things, Massey officials said that the company has appointed its own internal investigation team, and released some preliminary findings that criticized the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Suboleski said MSHA had forced Massey -- over the objections of company engineers -- to make airflow changes in the longwall section of the mine that made ventilation there "significantly more complex" and reduced the amount of fresh air routed to the longwall mining area.

Massey officials did not specifically blame the explosion on those changes, saying it was far too early to say what caused the blast.

During the news conference, Suboleski declined to elaborate on the ventilation changes. But in a later interview, he said they included MSHA ordering the company to stop using the controversial practice of using a conveyor belt tunnel to bring fresh air into the mine.

Previously released state and federal records have indicated heated disputes between Massey and government inspectors over ventilation systems meant to sweep methane gas out of the Upper Big Branch Mine. Government investigators and independent experts believe thus far that the explosion probably involved an ignition of methane gas that was made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust underground.

Bobby Inman, another Massey board member, took issue Monday with previous statements by President Obama and top MSHA officials that all coal-mine explosions can be prevented if companies follow proper safety practices.

"All accidents are preventable if you shut down production," Inman said. "Mining is -- there is no way around it -- is a dangerous business."

Inman also said criticism that Massey puts production and profits ahead of worker safety is false. He blamed media coverage that suggested otherwise on plaintiffs' lawyers and the United Mine Workers union.

Asked about Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co.'s guilty plea to 10 criminal mine safety violations in the January 2006 fire that killed two Logan County miners, Inman said, "profit had nothing to do with the Aracoma fire."

At the same time, the UMW announced that several workers at Upper Big Branch had appointed the union as their "miners' representative" to take part in the disaster investigation at the non-union operation.

The move gets UMW officials into the room during investigative interviews, and state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training officials have said Massey lawyers would also be allowed to attend. But so far, neither the Obama administration nor Gov. Joe Manchin have announced any plans to make those interviews -- typically conducted behind closed doors -- more transparent to the victims' families and the general public.

At least two widows have asked MSHA chief Joe Main to conduct the entire investigation through a public hearing. Main, a former UMW safety director, has not responded to those requests. On Monday, the lawyer for the family of fallen miner William Griffith wrote to Main again asking that the investigation be conducted in the open.

"The investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster must not exclude the independent voices of the miners or the families of the victims," wrote lawyers Rachel Hanna Moreland and Mark D. Moreland. "In that connection, we ask for a meeting at your earliest convenience to discuss our request for public hearing and/or any of the issues raised in this and prior correspondence."

Interviews had been scheduled to begin Tuesday, but have been postponed for at least a week. Investigators are also expecting that the presence of explosive gases and a possible fire underground will keep them from getting back underground at Upper Big Branch for at least a month and possible as long as three months.

Also Monday, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis included in her agency's new regulatory agenda proposals to revise MSHA's criteria for fining mine operators for violations and for taking stepped up enforcement against mines with repeated violations. In both cases, proposed changes aren't expected until at least January 2011.

The new MSHA regulatory agenda also includes a proposal -- not due until March 2011 -- to expand pre-shift safety check requirements for underground mines. Currently, MSHA regulations require only that pre-shift examinations look for "hazardous conditions." MSHA wants to instead require what federal law actually mandates -- safety checks for any violations of mandatory health and safety standards.

At its news conference, Massey said it is providing surviving spouses of the miners with health-care benefits for 20 years, as well as life insurance equal to five times' the miners' annual pay. Massey also said it will pay surviving spouses the difference between typical workers' compensation payments and the miners' salary.

Also, Massey said it would provide dependent children with four-year scholarships to any West Virginia public college, university or vocational school.

Families do not have to waive their rights to sue the company to receive these benefits, Massey said.

"We believe this is the most generous benefit package in the industry," Foglesong said.

@tag:Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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