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Massey plans to seal Upper Big Branch Mine

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy has told federal regulators it plans to seal the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died a year ago in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster since 1970.

Company officials are scheduled to meet next week with state mine safety regulators and with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to discuss a plan for sealing the mine.

The move comes as shareholders for Massey and Alpha Natural Resources prepare for a June 1 vote on Alpha's takeover of Massey, and as one investigation of the mine disaster is nearing completion.

Release of a report by the independent team, headed by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, is expected sometime within the next few weeks.

MSHA has scheduled a public briefing for late June for an update on its ongoing probe of the April 5, 2010, explosion. But a formal MSHA final report is not expected for months.

Before the explosion, the Raleigh County mine employed about 200 workers and produced more than 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to company data reported to MSHA.

Previously, now-retired Massey CEO Don Blankenship had indicated several times that the company hoped to reopen Upper Big Branch.

In its annual report to stockholders, filed in March, Massey reported that government investigations would force Upper Big Branch "to continue to be closed for an extended period of time, the length of time we cannot predict at this time. It is also possible that we may be required by regulators to permanently close this mine," the company said.

It is not clear if Massey ultimately plans to seek government approvals to open a new mine to recover coal left in the Upper Big Branch Mine's reserves. Company officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

Government investigators believe the deadly blast involved an ignition of methane gas that was made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust underground.

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


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