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Massey can't identify mines threatened by MSHA air plans

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Monday, Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship wrote to governors of West Virginia and three other coal states to warn them that federal regulators are requiring underground mine ventilation plans that Massey believes might not be safe.

Blankenship told Gov. Joe Manchin and the governors of Illinois, Kentucky and Virginia that, "coal miners in your states are less safe because of MSHA-mandated ventilation plans that are currently in place in your states today."

However, in an interview on Wednesday, top Massey officials were unable to identify mines that Blankenship was talking about.

"We've not yet talked to other longwall operators," said Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel. "At least not that I'm aware of."

Massey officials had distributed Blankenship's letter as part of an ongoing campaign to criticize the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's handling of issues at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 workers and injured two others.

Blankenship and other Massey officials have complained that MSHA required changes in the Upper Big Branch ventilation system that made the mine less safe, and Monday's letter warned that MSHA was taking similar actions at other mines across the coalfields.

"Ironically, perhaps the single biggest challenge to achieving safe mining is the current behavior of MSHA," Blankenship said in his letter to the governors.

So far, MSHA chief Joe Main and other agency officials have refused to comment on the Blankenship letter.

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.

At Upper Big Branch, Massey preferred a simple "push-pull" system in which huge fans at either end of the mine swept vast quantities of fresh air through the underground tunnels. In the months prior to the explosion, though, MSHA inspectors repeatedly cited Massey for ventilation problems, arguing that the company needed to add other controls to that system to provide enough fresh air throughout the operation.

Blankenship argued that MSHA is trying to force less-gassy mines like Upper Big Branch to implement ventilation plans that are better suited to Northern West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania mines in the Pittsburgh seam, which produces far larger quantities of methane.

In his letter, Blankenship pointed to an Illinois mine where the company appealed MSHA enforcement actions related to similar ventilation changes. However, that company, Mach Mining, lost its initial appeal before a Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission administrative law judge.

During an interview Wednesday, Harvey and Massey board member Stanley Suboleski said Massey has had similar disputes at another mine in West Virginia, but that MSHA relented on the ventilation changes there.

Harvey said he expects that other mines and operators soon have similar disputes with MSHA over ventilation plans, as the agency moves to require changes at those sites.

"We only believe that because MSHA has told us that Upper Big Branch is the first, and they are taking it to other places," Harvey said.

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


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