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MSHA approved lesser airflow prior to mine blast

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Internal investigators at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration are trying to sort out why agency officials approved a major reduction in the required airflow at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, months before the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

MSHA officials discussed the matter publicly for the first time Wednesday, after disclosing the ventilation change issue during a private meeting Tuesday night with families of some of the miners who died in the disaster.

"That's something that the internal review is looking at to find out why," Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator, told the Gazette. "I understand why people are concerned about that, and we want to get to the bottom of that."

The change in required airflow occurred when Massey returned an advanced longwall mining machine to the Upper Big Branch Mine in late 2009. The machine had been moved to another Massey operation for several years.

In the coal industry, mine operators must use powerful fans and collections of specially located walls, doors and other devices to channel large amounts of fresh air through mazes of underground tunnels. Proper mine ventilation is key to preventing black lung disease and to preventing the buildup of explosive methane gas and coal dust.

Generally, federal regulations require a minimum of 30,000 cubic feet per minute of fresh air flowing into a longwall mining face area. The rules allow MSHA to require more ventilation than that on a site-specific basis.

When the longwall machine was previously in use at Upper Big Branch, Massey's Performance Coal Co. was required to maintain at least 60,000 cubic feet per minute of fresh air running to the longwall.

But when the longwall machine was returned to the mine, MSHA in August 2009 approved the company's request to reduce the minimum airflow required to 40,000 cubic feet per minute, Stricklin confirmed Wednesday.

It's not clear what role -- if any -- the change in minimum required airflow could have had in the fatal explosion, which officials believe involved a methane ignition made far worse by a buildup of explosive coal dust underground.

At about 2:40 p.m. on April 5, a little more than 20 minutes before the explosion, airflow to the longwall was recorded at 56,000 cubic feet per minute -- well above the amount required by the MSHA-approved plan.

Still, Stricklin noted that MSHA investigators are looking closely at why airflow to the longwall had dropped substantially -- from more than 100,000 cubic feet per minute to 50,000 -- in the month or so immediately prior to the explosion.

Stricklin said Tuesday that MSHA believes the drop could have been caused by Massey's addition of a third "development section." Mining there was preparing the underground tunnels for the next area where the longwall would mine. Massey added it when roof and flooding conditions in another development section the company had planned to use next turned out to be too dangerous.

Federal and state investigators also are looking into concerns the airlock doors used to channel airflow underground were frequently left open or didn't fit properly, allowing fresh air to inadvertently be directed away from the longwall area.

Top MSHA officials have said Massey used such doors, instead of other ventilation control systems, more frequently than other mine operators. MSHA said the doors technically met legal requirements, so agency officials had no choice but to approve them. MSHA officials say they prefer "overcasts," which are enclosed airways that permit two air currents to pass by one another uninterrupted.

"Doors are easier and cheaper to construct than overcasts, but they can completely rob the working sections of air when they are left opened," MSHA deputy assistant secretary Greg Wagner wrote in a July 2010 memo critical of Massey's ventilation practices.

Wagner's memo also said that Massey had proposed a ventilation change to direct about 60,000 cubic feet per minute of air from the longwall area to a new set of mining tunnels located off the tail end of the longwall area. That request was being reviewed by MSHA when the disaster occurred.

In the months prior to the disaster, MSHA and state inspectors repeatedly cited Massey for a variety of serious ventilation violations at Upper Big Branch, and officials say the company was having a difficult time resolving airflow problems on a mine-wide basis.

But the news that MSHA approved a reduction in required airflow at the Upper Big Branch longwall also adds to questions about the federal agency's actions at the mine prior to the explosion.

"With the longwall being brought back to the same general position or location, it raises questions about why you would support a dramatic change in the ventilation," said Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration and was appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin to perform an independent investigation at Upper Big Branch.

MSHA officials did not invite McAteer to Tuesday night's meeting, for the first time excluding the independent team and other state investigators from a briefing for the Upper Big Branch families.

And on Wednesday, MSHA officials excluded McAteer from a briefing on the preliminary findings of the agency's internal review of its own performance prior to the disaster.

MSHA has been criticized before, after previous mine disasters, for not being rigorous enough in its review and approval of mine ventilation and roof control plans submitted by mine operators.

After 13 miners died at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Ala., in September 2001, an internal review team criticized the local MSHA office's handling of mining plans at that operation. Also, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report said weaknesses in plan reviews were a more widespread MSHA problem.

And after the Crandall Canyon Disaster in Utah in 2007, a Labor Department inspector general's investigation said MSHA was not thorough enough in reviewing the roof control plan for the mine where a major collapse killed six miners and three rescue workers.

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


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