CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Less than three weeks before the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up, a federal mine safety expert secretly tried to convince a high-ranking Massey Energy executive to send in the company's ventilation specialist to fix persistent and serious airflow problems at the Raleigh County mine.
The effort is documented in previously confidential email messages between Massey and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. The email messages were made available to state and federal investigators and obtained by the Gazette.
On March 16, 2010, MSHA ventilation inspector Joseph Mackowiak sent an electronic message to Massey vice president Chris Adkins.
"Low air on the headgate section again, despite last week's shut down," Mackowiak wrote. "I called Bill Ross and he is on another project right now.
"I think they could use some help," the email said. "Good luck."
Mackowiak is the ventilation supervisor in MSHA's District 4 office in Mount Hope, covering all of Southern West Virginia. Ross used to hold that job, and was Mackowiak's boss, before he retired from the government and took a job as a ventilation specialist for Massey.
Other email messages show Mackowiak and Ross discussing Mackowiak's suggestion to Adkins.
About an hour after Mackowiak emailed Ross, Ross sent a message to Mackowiak saying, "What's the verdict?"
Mackowiak responded, "I haven't received a reply yet."
Ross asked, "What did you say to him? I want to help out at the mine if they will listen?"
"I emailed him and told him that the headgate was out of air again despite last week's shut down," Mackowiak responded. "I called u and u were on another project, and they seemed like they needed some help."
Mackowiak told state and federal investigators he never got a response from Adkins. The ventilation supervisor testified three times during the civil investigation, but officials have not yet made public transcripts of his interviews.
Adkins and Ross are among 18 Massey management personnel who asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions from government investigators.
Neither Massey nor MSHA immediately responded to requests for comment for this story.
When Massey Energy is bought out by Alpha Natural Resources, Adkins is slated to work with an existing Alpha executive to "spearhead the implementation" of Alpha's main safety program, called "Running Right."