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UBB water sprayers were missing, families of victims charge

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine was missing key water sprays and did not have an operational fire suppression system at the time of the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners, lawyers for the families of two of the victims allege in court documents filed Friday.

Mark and Rachel Moreland, lawyers for the families of miners William Griffith and Ronald Maynor, outline their allegations in a proposal to amend their original wrongful-death lawsuit against Massey Energy and several affiliate companies.

The court documents also add new allegations based on U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration preliminary findings that Massey's Performance Coal Co. did not comply with federal regulations aimed at controlling the amount of explosive coal dust in the underground mine.

State and federal investigators have said they believe the April 5 explosion involved an ignition of methane gas that was then made far worse by a buildup of coal dust.

Massey Energy has argued coal dust had nothing to do with the explosion, and says the company always puts safety first. Company officials also believe that the water spray system under investigation by the government may have simply been damaged in the explosion.

In November and again this month, The Charleston Gazette reported that government investigators who examined the cutting tool, or shearer, on the Upper Big Branch longwall mining machine found key water sprays were missing. New details about the missing water sprays, contained in legal filings from Boone Circuit Court, were first reported Friday afternoon by National Public Radio.

Investigators say the water sprays on the longwall machine help hold down dust that can cause black lung disease and can contribute to explosions. They also help control sparks or flames that can occur when the mining machine cuts into coal and surrounding rock.

The proposed lawsuit amendment alleges that the longwall mining machine was being operated with missing sprayers on the longwall shearer, with inadequate water pressure on the shearer, with some sprayers "spiked" with nails, and without fully operational "boom sprayers." The amendment alleges that the combination of these factors created "an extremely dangerous circumstance considering the known presence of explosive methane gas at various times on the longwall face."

Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel, said that the company has seen no evidence of any "spiked" water sprays, and believes that any missing water sprays could have been destroyed by the explosion.

Harvey said that the longwall machine's fire suppression system was found to be missing one of two key valves, and that closer examination of the other valve was needed.

"We don't think it had anything to do with the explosion," Harvey said. "But that's not to say it shouldn't have been in better condition than what we found it in."

Harvey said that the company's experts believe that the water sprays on the shearer were intended to control the level of coal dust miners inhale, and were not designed to help control sparks, fires or explosions.

"Whether they have some small side benefit, I've not found anyone who would say that," Harvey said.

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


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