CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators said Wednesday they had blocked Massey Energy from using air scrubbers in dozens of underground mines because the equipment was not protecting miners from exposure to illegal levels of coal dust that causes black lung disease.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials also said they believe the real reason Massey is upset about the move is that it stops the company from taking larger cuts of coal, reducing the coal giant's production rates.
"We've taken away extended cuts," said MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin. "That's the heart of the issue in my opinion."
Extended cuts can allow coal operators to take up to twice as much coal, with cuts into the coal seam of up to 40 feet deep instead of 20 feet, Stricklin said.
In an interview, Stricklin responded to Massey news releases that have attacked MSHA for shutting down the use of scrubbers on 62 of 132 continuous mining machines at Massey operations across the coalfields.
Sticklin said MSHA data for last year show Massey had about 12 percent of the nation's mining units, but accounted for 23 percent of the federal citations issued for excessive dust in underground mines.
"That's telling me they're not doing very well in dust controls," he said.
Stricklin said MSHA inspectors and Massey's own sampling showed violations of federal dust limits, even when the company's mines were using the dust-scrubbing machines touted by Massey.
Massey has been pushing the scrubber issue in the wake of the deaths of 29 workers in an explosion at the company's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County. Massey has also complained that MSHA required ventilation changes at Upper Big Branch that reduced the fresh-air flow in that mine prior to the April 5 disaster.