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MSHA ventilation plan dangerous, Blankenship says

Read the Massey letter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy stepped up its effort to criticize federal regulators following the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, pointing to an Illinois case where Department of Labor inspectors ordered additional ventilation controls and methane monitoring the company involved said wasn't needed.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship wrote to Gov. Joe Manchin and the governors of Kentucky, Illinois and Virginia about the case, saying it raised "grave and serious concerns" about the actions of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

In the letter, dated Monday, Blankenship warned the governors that "coal miners in your states are less safe because of MSHA-mandated ventilation plans that are currently in place in your states today."

MSHA refused comment Tuesday, saying it needed more time to review Blankenship's letter before responding to it.

Gov. Joe Manchin thanked Blankenship for his letter, and state mine safety chief Ron Wooten declined comment on the letter beyond a short prepared statement that said "there is not enough information to substantiate the allegations" made by Massey.

Massey has previously complained about MSHA-ordered ventilation plan changes, criticizing the agency at a news conference the day after the memorial service for the 29 miners killed in the April 5 explosion at Upper Big Branch.

The company has stopped just short of blaming the disaster on MSHA but emphasized in Blankenship's letter that the explosion occurred "just 26 days" after the company implemented the last change ordered by MSHA inspectors.

Methane and coal dust are constant threats in underground coal mines. Federal law requires all mines to operate according to MSHA-approved ventilation plans intended to sweep fresh air through a mine, and keep coal dust and methane below explosive levels. Ventilation plans include requirements for large fans and a series of walls, curtains and other devices to direct fresh and dirty air in and out of underground tunnels.

In his letter to the governors, Blankenship complained that MSHA officials have in the last year begun requiring underground mines that produce smaller amounts of methane to use ventilation systems more appropriate for more "gassy" mines in Western Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia.

Blankenship said when used in gassy areas, those systems capture large amounts of methane behind longwall machines, where it can be recovered and piped to the surface, where it is sometimes sold commercially. In those mines, the large amount of methane present pushes above 15 percent of the atmospheric gases, out of the explosive range.

But, Blankenship argued, in less-gassy mines, these systems "may allow methane to linger" in the explosive range, which is roughly between 5 percent and 15 percent of the atmosphere.

Blankenship repeated Massey's complaints that the MSHA-mandated system refused the flow of fresh air at Upper Big Branch, and said agency officials had previously been "warned" about such problems by another company, Mach Mining LLC.

In September 2009, Mach Mining challenged two major citations in which MSHA inspectors alleged ventilation violations at the company's Mach No. 1 Mine in Illinois.

At that mine, Mach had wanted to deploy a "push-pull" ventilation system, with large fans pushing and pulling huge amounts of fresh air through the mine. The arrangement would have allowed Mach not to install as many other ventilation controls as mining advanced underground, the company believed.

But MSHA inspectors objected that the company had not, as required by new regulations, made a compelling case for why the mine needed to use its conveyor belt tunnel to bring fresh air into the mine. And, inspectors found -- as they also did at Upper Big Branch -- that airflow was reversed, with fresh air going in at least one location away from workers instead of toward them.

MSHA inspectors also wanted Mach Mining to more frequently evaluate the effectiveness of its ventilation system, by checking air quality in mined-out areas. Company officials wanted to simply check air as it flowed out of the mine.

In addition, MSHA inspectors found that Mach Mining was running two continuous mining machines on the same fresh-air supply, a violation of federal rules.

And they alleged that the company drove its latest longwall section too far in one direction, creating a "stair-step" effect that required additional ventilation controls to be safe.

In a January ruling, Administrative Law Judge Margaret Miller, of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, upheld MSHA on those issues, and concluded that Mach Mining's ventilation plan "is not flexible or easily altered, making it difficult to meet changing needs as mining progresses."

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


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