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Massey reveals 'mistakes' at Upper Big Branch

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy revealed Thursday that its corporatewide accident rates for each of the last three years were up to 40 percent worse than the company had originally reported.

Massey also disclosed what it called "mistakes" -- involving electric equipment and underground mine ventilation systems -- that occurred at its Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners.

The company said none of the mistakes "contributed in any way to the accident," but were being disclosed "in the interests of transparency and accountability."

Massey said that it wrongly did not remove rail tracks from part of the mine's longwall area, leaving a potential pathway for an electrical current in place.

The company also said that Massey workers and federal inspectors moved some "non-permissible" equipment -- meaning gear that was not certified as not producing sparks that could ignite an explosion -- on that track. Massey said this may have occurred because of "confusion" about recent ventilation changes at the mine.

Massey also said that, in some places underground, air-lock doors were used instead of more permanent ventilation structures called overcasts. Air-lock doors, if left open, can cause potentially dangerous changes in underground mine airflow. Massey said MSHA approved the doors, but that their use violated the company's own "best practices."

Federal investigators have said that their probe of the Upper Big Branch explosion includes a close look at the placement and operation of the mine's air-lock doors.

Regarding its accident rates, Massey said after the explosion it "began a meticulous review of the company's accident reporting at all of its facilities." That review, Massey said, "revealed errors" in previously reported nonfatal injury rates from 2007 to 2009.

Based on nonfatal days lost injuries per 200,000 hours worked -- the standard industry measure -- Massey's 2007 rate increased from 2.05 to 2.63. The company's 2008 rate increased from 1.94 to 2.52, and its 2009 rate from 1.67 to 2.33, Massey said.

"While the company is disappointed in the lapses in its reporting procedures, it recognizes that the revised NFDL rates for the 2007, 2008 and 2009 calendar years still rank better than the industry averages for those annual periods," Massey said. "The company is working to ensure that similar reporting errors are avoided in the future and Massey remains committed to putting the safety and health of our miners first."

The new information was included near the end of a more than 6,600-word "Letter to Stakeholders" released Thursday afternoon as part of Massey's ongoing and aggressive public relations campaign following the mine disaster.

Much of the letter repeats Massey's criticism of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, attacking the agency's mine ventilation practices and MSHA's closed-door investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

"While the focus of attention has been on Massey, the public, government officials and the media should be at least as skeptical about the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which enforces law intended to protect miners," the letter said.

"No one should assume that MSHA always knows what's best for miners or that its directives to mine owners are the product of careful, thoughtful application of best practices to ensure safe mining," Massey said. "Nor should they assume that MSHA is always objective, knowledgeable and fair in its enforcement of the mine safety laws."

Massey also alleged in the letter that MSHA has "intentionally disturbed" a crack in the Upper Big Branch Mine floor "damaging a vital piece of evidence" regarding whether a burst of methane from that crack may have been involved in the explosion.

"Their actions are difficult to understand, particularly given the previous known episodes of methane outbursts from similar cracks at UBB and nearby mines in the same coal seam," Massey said. "Notably, another mine in the same region as UBB, experienced a similar outburst around the time of the April 5 accident."

MSHA offered no immediate response to the latest Massey statements, but the agency did release more plans for improving its enforcement against repeat violators, following up on a scathing Department of Labor inspector general's report issued Wednesday.

In a news release, MSHA said it would toughen the requirements for any mine operators who are cited for a "pattern of violations" -- MSHA has never actually succeeded in issuing such an order -- to be removed from that status.

"Our efforts are focused on ensuring that future potential POV and POV determinations are an effective part of MSHA's enforcement strategy and advance Congress's intent -- that mine operators find and fix the root causes of violations before they become a hazard to miners."

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


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