CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal and state investigators on Thursday dismissed a Massey Energy assertion that the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster was caused by a freak flood of methane gas that the company could do nothing to control.
Massey officials launched a public relations blitz focused on mine ventilation data they said showed "a sudden inundation of unusually high levels of methane gas," probably from a crack in the floor near the mine's longwall machine.
Government investigators said Massey's version of events doesn't add up, and criticized the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant for trying to divert blame in the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.
"The effort to place blame on God or another person is not an uncommon practice after disasters, particularly in the mining industry," said Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin's special investigator for the disaster. "But investigations have almost always led to the conclusion that it wasn't God who did it."
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a statement noting that high methane liberation like that at Upper Big Branch would be expected in the hours after a major explosion, and reminded that Massey had been repeatedly cited for mine ventilation and related violations at Upper Big Branch prior to the disaster.
Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5 explosion, which mine safety experts have said was likely caused by the ignition of methane gas and was made far worse -- blasting through 2 1/2 miles of mine tunnels -- by the buildup of highly explosive coal dust.
The disaster is the focus of multiple civil investigations, a congressional probe, and prompted federal prosecutors to begin their own examination, looking for possible criminal wrongdoing related to hundreds of Upper Big Branch safety violations dating back more than four years.
Over the last few months, nonunion Massey has engaged in an aggressive public relations campaign to point fingers at MSHA. Joe Main, the United Mine Workers' longtime safety director, currently runs MSHA. The Obama administration has repeatedly blasted Massey as a scofflaw that puts profits ahead of worker safety.
In the midst of Massey's media blitz Thursday, MSHA released to reporters a memo by Greg Wagner, the agency's deputy assistant secretary, alleging that Massey's campaign is meant to "deflect the blame" and avoid "multimillion judgments" in wrongful death cases.
Early Thursday, Massey issued a news release and then held a telephone press conference to promote its theory about the disaster's cause, all just hours before company CEO Don Blankenship was to deliver a highly anticipated talk at the National Press Club in Washington.
"The politicians will tell you we're going to do something so this never happens again, and you won't hear me say that," Blankenship told reporters at that event. "Because I believe that the physics of natural law and God trump whatever man tries to do.
"Whether you get earthquakes underground, whether you get broken floors, whether you get gas inundations, whether you get roof falls, oftentimes they are unavoidable, just as other accidents are in society," Blankenship said.
During the company's press conference, Christopher Schemel, an engineer hired as a Massey consultant, explained that MSHA sampling, which started more than five hours after the 3 p.m. explosion, showed methane liberation from Upper Big Branch's main exhaust fan was at that point double its typical rate.
Schemel also showed reporters photos of a crack in the mine floor that Massey had previously disclosed as having been found near the mine's longwall machine, a potential ignition source.
"Given its location and physical characteristics, this area is of interest as a potential entry point for the entry of methane into this mine," Schemel said.