CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety officials are refusing to make public documents that may turn out to contain crucial information regarding potential ventilation problems in the weeks prior to the explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials have not responded to public records requests for the documents and have so far refused to provide them to an independent team investigating the mine disaster at the request or former Gov. Joe Manchin.
The documents in question detail five proposed ventilation changes that Massey sought from MSHA in March 2010, but that were still awaiting federal agency action when the explosion occurred on April 5.
The records also outline more than a dozen ventilation changes that Massey proposed and MSHA denied between September 2009 and April 2010, according to a document index made public last week.
MSHA officials have not technically denied a Gazette Freedom of Information Act request for the ventilation documents, but have also not explained their reasons for not having made them public nearly a year after the disaster.
Members of the independent state team, headed by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, have been stonewalled for months as they've tried to get the records and wrap up their investigation report before the one-year anniversary of the blast.
"We don't have those records," McAteer said Thursday. "We have asked for copies of those documents. We think they address a number of questions that have been raised about the ventilation plans and MSHA's role in approving or denying the ventilation plans."
Under state and federal laws, mine operators are required to ensure that enough fresh air flows into underground mines to protect miners from dangerous fumes and dust and to prevent a buildup of methane gas or dust than can cause explosions and fires.
Mine operators submit detailed ventilation plans to MSHA, and those plans must receive agency approval before they can be put into action and before mines are allowed to legally operate.