Massey officials have repeatedly complained that MSHA officials dictated that they make ventilation changes the company's engineers didn't believe were safe. MSHA has responded that it's up to a mine operator to propose a workable and safe ventilation plan.
Federal and state investigators believe that the Upper Big Branch disaster involved a methane explosion that was made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust underground. Still not explained, though, is what if any role problems with the mine's ventilation system played in the explosion.
MSHA inspectors had cited the company with a variety of serious ventilation violations in the months before the blast. Massey also was in the process of switching away from the use of a conveyor belt tunnel to bring fresh air into the mine because the company had decided it didn't want to submit a detailed plan justifying the practice or add new safety equipment required by a new MSHA rule on so-called "belt air" ventilation.
In the months after the explosion, MSHA posted dozens of documents about Upper Big Branch on its Web site, including inspection reports and other enforcement records. MSHA also posted the mine's basic ventilation plan and a variety of changes that MSHA had approved. But the agency has not posted any of the proposed changes that MSHA denied or any of the proposals that had not been acted on at the time of the explosion.
During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Main initially blamed the ongoing criminal investigation of the mine disaster on his agency's failure to produce the ventilation documents.
"There is a normal course of collecting and controlling information and the agency has to have some ability to conduct its business in a way that serves what the Mine Act calls for," Main said.
Asked if prosecutors had specifically asked MSHA not to release the ventilation records, Main said he wasn't sure what ventilation records had not been made public.
"You may know more about it than I do," Main said. "I know there have been some requests and we're proceeding with processing those. I don't know exactly what files you're talking about. I'll have our folks take a look at it."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.