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Upper Big Branch exploration delayed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Regulators plan to wait at least three days before sending crews back into the West Virginia coal mine where 29 men died in an explosion nearly two months ago, a state official said Thursday.

Mine owner Massey Energy Co. had wanted teams to resume exploring the Upper Big Branch Mine Friday to make sure it's safe for investigators to work underground. Now, the plan is to wait until Monday before exploring the mine a second time, state mine safety chief Ron Wooten said.

Waiting will give workers time to finish drilling the latest of several ventilation holes from the surface more than 1,000 feet above the area where the men killed in the explosion were working.

"Since the hole is in the process, may as well go ahead and put it in and get some readings, because that's right where we're going to go," Wooten said. "It'll take us a couple weeks once we start the full scale re-entry ... before they're going to be in a position to declare that the mine is safe for the investigators to go in barefaced."

Massey said the plan is to wait until readings through the latest borehole show methane readings are safer.

Two four-members teams of Massey and government employees entered the mine Wednesday -- the first people to do so since rescuers recovered the last of the dead in April. The teams wore oxygen tanks similar to those used by firefighters while exploring the area between the mine's two entrances and hooking up a telephone line.

The teams found few hazards beyond some standing water about 5 inches above rails that carry the vehicles that move workers in and out of the mine, Wooten said.

State and federal mining regulators are eager to enter the mine and search for clues to the April 5 blast, the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years. So far, they've been limited to interviewing witnesses and reviewing records.

The explosion also is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

Separately, activists who want Massey officials to face state manslaughter charges have begun a billboard campaign and online petition drive.

Russell Mokhiber of Berkeley Springs is among those behind the website prosecutemassey.org and the group that created it, Daily Citizen Inc. A petition on the group's website had more than 2,000 signatures on Thursday. Mokhiber said the group is also planning statewide radio ads.

The petition targets Raleigh County prosecutor Kristin Keller, who told The Associated Press last week she won't hesitate to prosecute if she's presented with evidence of a crime. But Keller says she doesn't base prosecutions on petitions, and her office does not have its own investigators.

Massey called Daily Citizen's actions "unsubstantiated and unwarranted," noting that no one knows what caused the explosion.

Daily Citizen is showing it "has no interest in objectively acquiring all the facts," Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said. "Their website is more focused on fundraising than fact-finding."


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