Investigators dismiss Massey's view that disaster 'unavoidable'
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal and state investigators on Thursday dismissed a Massey Energy assertion that the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster was caused by a freak flood of methane gas that the company could do nothing to control.
Massey officials launched a public relations blitz focused on mine ventilation data they said showed "a sudden inundation of unusually high levels of methane gas," probably from a crack in the floor near the mine's longwall machine.
Government investigators said Massey's version of events doesn't add up, and criticized the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant for trying to divert blame in the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.
"The effort to place blame on God or another person is not an uncommon practice after disasters, particularly in the mining industry," said Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin's special investigator for the disaster. "But investigations have almost always led to the conclusion that it wasn't God who did it."
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a statement noting that high methane liberation like that at Upper Big Branch would be expected in the hours after a major explosion, and reminded that Massey had been repeatedly cited for mine ventilation and related violations at Upper Big Branch prior to the disaster.
Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5 explosion, which mine safety experts have said was likely caused by the ignition of methane gas and was made far worse -- blasting through 2 1/2 miles of mine tunnels -- by the buildup of highly explosive coal dust.
The disaster is the focus of multiple civil investigations, a congressional probe, and prompted federal prosecutors to begin their own examination, looking for possible criminal wrongdoing related to hundreds of Upper Big Branch safety violations dating back more than four years.
Over the last few months, nonunion Massey has engaged in an aggressive public relations campaign to point fingers at MSHA. Joe Main, the United Mine Workers' longtime safety director, currently runs MSHA. The Obama administration has repeatedly blasted Massey as a scofflaw that puts profits ahead of worker safety.
In the midst of Massey's media blitz Thursday, MSHA released to reporters a memo by Greg Wagner, the agency's deputy assistant secretary, alleging that Massey's campaign is meant to "deflect the blame" and avoid "multimillion judgments" in wrongful death cases.
Early Thursday, Massey issued a news release and then held a telephone press conference to promote its theory about the disaster's cause, all just hours before company CEO Don Blankenship was to deliver a highly anticipated talk at the National Press Club in Washington.
"The politicians will tell you we're going to do something so this never happens again, and you won't hear me say that," Blankenship told reporters at that event. "Because I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do.
"Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable, just as other accidents are in society," Blankenship said.
During the company's press conference, Christopher Schemel, an engineer hired as a Massey consultant, explained that MSHA sampling, which started more than five hours after the 3 p.m. explosion, showed methane liberation from Upper Big Branch's main exhaust fan was at that point double its typical rate.
Schemel also showed reporters photos of a crack in the mine floor that Massey had previously disclosed as having been found near the mine's longwall machine, a potential ignition source.
"Given its location and physical characteristics, this area is of interest as a potential entry point for the entry of methane into this mine," Schemel said.
Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel, said the company believes it is "a distinct possibility" that the disaster was a natural event beyond Massey's control.
Other mine safety experts noted that Massey's methane data shows only that the rate the explosive gas was exiting the Upper Big Branch Mine increased greatly in the hours after the disaster, which doesn't necessarily mean anything about how great the methane liberation rate was just prior to the explosion.
At a news conference on April 26, Massey board member Stan Suboleski told reporters that the last methane checks -- taken just before the shift change that was occurring when the mine exploded -- showed no methane problems.
"No hazards were found and methane measurements ranged from zero to nearly zero, a max of three-tenths of 1 percent," Suboleski said.
MSHA said Thursday that elevated methane liberation after the explosion "would be expected if the explosion damaged ventilation controls and if mine gases from sealed areas or from the longwall gob were pulled into the ventilation air current.
"This would cause a rise in methane after the explosion and could account for elevated methane in the samples," the MSHA statement said.
The Gazette has previously disclosed MSHA records that documented methane "outbursts" from the Upper Big Branch Mine's floor in 2003 and 2004, but neither MSHA nor Massey had provided complete answers about what steps -- if any -- were taken to avoid repeats of those incidents or at least mitigate the potential damage.
McAteer has said that his independent team is looking into what Massey did following those incidents and whether state and federal agencies required proper safeguards by the company.
"If a mining method or a mine seam is vulnerable or prone to methane outbursts, then the question is what precautions were taken or have been taken or have been implemented to prevent these outbursts from turning into a cataclysmic event," McAteer said in an interview.
In his memo, written for top Labor Department lawyer Patricia Smith, MSHA's Wagner outlined the long list of ventilation and related violations by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal at Upper Big Branch.
Contrary to Massey's assertion that its in-house engineers knew better than MSHA how to ventilate the mine, Wagner wrote that company officials did not even have a copy of federal safety regulations they were supposed to follow. MSHA sent the company a copy in early December as "a courtesy," Wagner wrote.
But Wagner's memo did not include any formal MSHA documents to back up its version of events, and the Obama administration has posted incomplete copies of the Upper Big Branch's ventilation files on the MSHA Web site.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, said the back-and-forth between Massey and MSHA demonstrates that the union and others were right to try to persuade MSHA to conduct its disaster investigation through an open, public hearing.
"One of the reasons the UMWA called for an open investigation at the outset was to make it much harder for Massey to use public relations and media manipulation to misdirect attention from the company's potential culpability in this disaster," Smith said. "That is, in fact, exactly what has happened, and what could have been a strong investigation now has the potential to be trivialized by the army of straw men coming out of Massey's high-priced Washington PR firm."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.