Blankenship and other company officials have vigorously defended themselves, saying Massey is a national leader on safety and never puts production ahead of protecting miners. Still, some shareholder groups have complained that Blankenship's leadership has not put safety first, and amid the disaster's aftermath, the Massey's board is exploring various potential changes, including a sale of the company.
Blankenship has announced that all of Massey's underground mines will close for the day on Friday for increased safety training and mine safety examinations, following a series of tough enforcement actions by MSHA and the disciplining of a number of miners and mine supervisors.
Blankenship said the company has more than doubled -- from 20 to 50 -- the number of employees dedicated to "internal inspections" across the company and rewritten all underground job descriptions so safety expectations and accountability are made more clear.
"We're doing everything we can to comply better than anyone in the industry," Blankenship said. "We will outperform the industry."
Also Wednesday, Massey officials continued their campaign to discredit MSHA's investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster and to argue that a buildup of coal dust underground did not contribute to the tragedy.
Blankenship said that the company's "preliminary computer models" support the theory that the explosion occurred when a tunnel called the "tailgate entry" was flooded with methane gas. "We do not believe that coal dust was a meaningful factor," Blankenship said.
Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel, said Massey has other evidence the company will "elaborate on in the future" that supports that view.
MSHA investigators have argued that the disaster was made far worse when high levels of coal dust allowed the explosion to carry from its point of origin far out toward the mine mouth. Agency officials cited the fact that 79 percent of the more than 1,800 dust samples taken from inside the mine showed inadequate levels of crushed limestone, or rock dust, meant to control dust ignitions.
Harvey said the company has evidence "showing that the levels of rock dust and coal dust in the mines were affected by the explosion, making MSHA's samples invalid" just as a federal judge ruled similar samples were after an Alabama coal-mining disaster in 2001.
MSHA has declined to answer questions about how its rock-dust sampling procedures or testing methods were different than those that were discounted after that 2001 disaster, an explosion that killed 13 miners at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.