CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy officials said Monday that safety checks revealed no methane buildup or ventilation problems at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine just prior to the explosion that killed 29 miners three weeks ago.
"There was no evidence of a dangerous condition," said Massey board member Stanley C. Suboleski. "I'm mystified at what occurred at the mine on April 5."
Suboleski joined Massey CEO Don Blankenship and two other company board members, Bobby Inman and Robert Foglesong, for a Charleston news conference Monday morning, one day after a public memorial for the miners killed at Upper Big Branch.
Massey officials used the event to tout benefits they say the company is offering the disaster victims' families and to try to combat continuing media coverage focused on the Richmond, Va.-based company's safety record.
"We have many questions, and we know our stakeholders -- all those who care about Massey Energy -- do as well," the company said in an open letter released just before the press event. "With the immediate emergency of the accident over, we know it is time to report to you what Massey Energy is doing, and will do, in the aftermath of this tragedy."
Among other things, Massey officials said that the company has appointed its own internal investigation team, and released some preliminary findings that criticized the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Suboleski said MSHA had forced Massey -- over the objections of company engineers -- to make airflow changes in the longwall section of the mine that made ventilation there "significantly more complex" and reduced the amount of fresh air routed to the longwall mining area.
Massey officials did not specifically blame the explosion on those changes, saying it was far too early to say what caused the blast.
During the news conference, Suboleski declined to elaborate on the ventilation changes. But in a later interview, he said they included MSHA ordering the company to stop using the controversial practice of using a conveyor belt tunnel to bring fresh air into the mine.
Previously released state and federal records have indicated heated disputes between Massey and government inspectors over ventilation systems meant to sweep methane gas out of the Upper Big Branch Mine. Government investigators and independent experts believe thus far that the explosion probably involved an ignition of methane gas that was made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust underground.
Bobby Inman, another Massey board member, took issue Monday with previous statements by President Obama and top MSHA officials that all coal-mine explosions can be prevented if companies follow proper safety practices.
"All accidents are preventable if you shut down production," Inman said. "Mining is -- there is no way around it -- is a dangerous business."
Inman also said criticism that Massey puts production and profits ahead of worker safety is false. He blamed media coverage that suggested otherwise on plaintiffs' lawyers and the United Mine Workers union.