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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State investigators on Monday flatly disputed Massey Energy's latest pronouncement about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster: that evidence now confirms that methane monitors on the mine's longwall section "had not been disabled."
Officials from two state investigation teams said physical evidence is still being gathered, interviews about methane monitors at the mine are still being conducted, and data from those monitoring systems are only now beginning to be analyzed.
"I think it's premature for Massey to suggest that they have come to a conclusion," said Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin's special investigator. "The investigation thus far does not support a conclusion that a methane monitor was or was not disabled."
Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, agreed.
"We do not have information at this point to say that they have or have not been tampered with," Wooten said.
Wooten and McAteer responded Monday afternoon to a news release in which Massey Energy briefly described presentations company officials gave to the families of Upper Big Branch victims.
Chief among the "key briefing issues discussed" was Massey's finding that "methane monitors at the longwall section had not been disabled," according to the company's news release.
Families of about half of the 29 miners killed in the April 5 explosion attended the meeting, held in a ballroom of the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Charleston. Massey's public relations agents turned news reporters away at the door.
During a brief question-and-answer session with reporters after the meeting, Massey General Counsel Shane Harvey noted that some media reports have for weeks focused on allegations that the company routinely disabled equipment that would shut off mining machines if methane levels at Upper Big Branch reached the explosive range.
Those media reports, led by stories broadcast by National Public Radio, have quoted former Massey workers saying it was common to "bridge out" the automatic shutoff devices on continuing mining machines used in other parts of the Upper Big Branch mine.
Mine safety experts believe the massive blast at Upper Big Branch involved an ignition of methane gas and was probably made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust. The explosion -- the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years -- is the subject of multiple civil investigations and a criminal probe.
Massey had previously denied the media reports about methane monitors being disabled, saying the company "strongly forbids any improper conduct relating to any and all safety devices designed to protect the health and safety of company members.
"Such actions never have been nor ever will be tolerated by Massey and contradict the company's commitment to doing its part to safeguard miners from foreseeable harm," Massey said in a statement.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.