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MSHA, Massey nixed UBB Mine degassing plan

JULIAN, W.Va. -- Massey Energy dropped plans to install "degasification wells" at its Upper Big Branch Mine after federal regulators gave their blessing to alternative efforts to avoid a repeat of two methane inundations at the mine in 2003 and 2004, company officials said Friday.

Massey officials said the company opted instead to focus on trying to direct more fresh air toward the mine's working face to avoid a gas inundation of the sort Massey believes led to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship said the company switched gears on the issue in response to updated recommendations from federal agencies and an agreement at the time with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about the best course of action.

"I don't know of any degassing," Blankenship said. "My understanding of the conclusion that both MSHA and Massey reached at the time was that the answer was more air."

Blankenship discussed the 2003 and 2004 gas "outbursts" from the Upper Big Branch Mine floor in a wide-ranging and unprecedented discussion with news media representatives Friday afternoon.

Massey invited about a dozen local and national reporters to its regional headquarters along Corridor G, south of Charleston, for an on-the-record but informal discussion. Questions focused on mine safety and the Upper Big Branch disaster, but Massey said Blankenship would discuss anything except a potential sale of the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant.

Blankenship said he wanted to meet with the media in a less formal setting, to clear up what he said were erroneous reports about Upper Big Branch and to urge reporters to focus more on Massey's complaints about MSHA policies the company says are threatening miner safety and health.

In the more than two-hour session, Blankenship repeatedly came back to Massey's complaint that MSHA has stopped mine operators from using scrubber devices to control coal dust in underground mines.

"It could be a factor in an explosion tomorrow," Blankenship said of MSHA's moves to limit scrubber use. "It could be a factor in someone getting black lung."

MSHA has said the dispute is more about Massey's desire to resume taking large cuts of coal, a procedure the agency says is often too dangerous. On Friday, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said her agency has no policy banning the use of scrubbers, and that about half of Massey's mining units are permitted to operate the devices on their continuous-mining machines.

"The ventilation plans at some Massey operations where they were using continuous miners with scrubbers did not comply with basic dust-control and other regulatory requirements," Louviere said in an e-mail message. "MSHA continues to monitor their compliance performance on a mine-by-mine basis."

Blankenship also repeated Massey's contention that MSHA forced the company to make ventilation changes prior to the Upper Big Branch explosion that reduced the amount of fresh air being directed toward the working face of the mine's longwall section.

But in a memo leaked to the press in July, MSHA deputy assistant secretary Greg Wagner noted that Massey publicly touted its effort to get more air to the Upper Big Branch longwall face, but had actually sought approval in January 2010 to reduce that airflow.

"Massey actually proposed dramatically reducing the amount of air on the longwall face by using the air from the existing ventilation plan to ventilate a proposed section near the Ellis portal," Wagner wrote. "Massey had hoped to begin mining the older section of the mien allowing it to produce more coal."

MSHA rejected the request. Blankenship did not deny that proposal had been submitted, but said Friday it had nothing to do with the explosion.

Also Friday, Blankenship confirmed one widely repeated rumor: That prior to the explosion, Massey had been working on a plan to add another ventilation shaft to the Upper Big Branch Mine. Massey officials said that additional shaft was something MSHA was requiring as part of the mine's request to resume using its conveyor-belt tunnels to carry fresh air into the mine.

Friday's interview session continued Massey's high-profile campaign to criticize the Obama administration's mine-safety policies and discredit MSHA's investigation of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

In the months since the April 5 disaster, Massey has used periodic news conferences and statements to push its theory that the blast was fueled by an unexpected flood of methane from natural gas reservoirs beneath Upper Big Branch through cracks in the mine's floor.

Earlier this week, Blankenship told an investors' meeting in New York that the incident was "something unusual" that "didn't come out of the normal mining process" and "not something you would normally be guarding against."

MSHA and Massey investigated similar incidents at Upper Big Branch in 2003 and 2004, though, neither of which involved injuries.

In a March 2004 memo, first reported by the Gazette-Mail in June, MSHA officials said Massey "indicated that degasification wells are planned for the next longwall panel in an effort to bleed off any gas prior to encroachment of the longwall face." MSHA called the approach "a reasonable plan."

Four months later, in a July 2004 memo, MSHA wrote off the degasification plan as "highly problematic."

"The fracture zones are not visible underground and their position can only be ascertained as generalized trends," the July 2004 memo said. "The locations of the gas zones are revealed by methane released from fractures produced by disturbance of the extracted longwall. Gas well stimulation programs may not be effective if the well is not located in the exact area of the gas zone."

Instead, MSHA listed a variety of steps that could be taken, including increasing airflow to the longwall face and coming up with a plan for how workers should respond if an inundation occurred.

Blankenship said he has not asked his company's engineers and other experts for more information on why the degasification program was not completed.

"I haven't pursued it," Blankenship said, "but you have to keep in mind that you can't degas all of these vast areas very easily."

MSHA officials have not responded to a public-records request seeking all of the agency's documents about the follow-up to the 2003 and 2004 gas inundations at Upper Big Branch.

Massey officials indicated Friday that they have additional documents on the subject, and have provided those to investigators. Blankenship said he would have to consult with company lawyers before he could agree to release those to the media or the public.

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


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