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Faked methane tests common at UBB, report says

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BECKLEY, W.Va. -- Disabling methane monitors and faking key tests for explosive gas had become a common practice at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, independent investigators concluded in a detailed report issued Thursday.

The report from a team led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer singled out one episode in which a Massey foreman allegedly did not complete required safety examinations the morning of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners.

McAteer quotes sworn testimony from a miner who worked with foreman Jeremy Burghduff, telling investigators he knew Burghduff hadn't completed safety checks in a key set of tunnels near the longwall mining section.

The McAteer report also says that investigators downloaded data from Burghduff's methane detector and discovered the device was not turned on during at least 25 of his work shifts between September 2009 and April 2010.

Investigators also questioned whether air-flow readings listed by Burghduff on official safety reports could possibly have been accurate, because readings taken over a matter of weeks varied so little from day to day.

"This data raises doubt about the daily and weekly air readings and other data recorded by the crew foreman in the weeks leading up to the disaster," the McAteer report said. "Accurate air readings and water levels in those key ventilation entries would provide a valuable history of conditions in a critical part of the mine in the days and weeks just prior to the explosion."

In the report, McAteer's investigative team said that data downloaded from the methane detectors of other Massey foremen showed that they also had not been turned on at times when those foremen were underground and responsible for taking tests to determine if hazardous conditions existed.

"It suggests that was a practice at this mine," McAteer told reporters Thursday afternoon.

The McAteer report also offered support for media accounts, especially those by National Public Radio, that methane detectors on mining equipment at Upper Big Branch had been disabled through a technique known as "bridging out." The report said this technique was used "so that production could continue without taking time to make repairs."

In a prepared statement, Massey general counsel Shane Harvey said that all methane detectors at Upper Big Branch were functional at the time of the explosion.

McAteer's report didn't dispute that, but said the issue was still a major concern.

"Although equipment disabling has not been directly tied to the explosion itself, this practice is a present and constant danger to workers and a violation of sate and federal law," the McAteer report said.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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