Investigators believe the ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone on the longwall machine's shearer. They also believe that a coal-dust buildup underground sent what could have been a minor ignition into an explosion that rocketed in all directions, greatly increasing the damage and deaths. Like McAteer and his team, the UMW cited poor ventilation practices, illegal accumulations of highly explosive coal dust, and a failure to maintain water sprays and cutting bits on the longwall shearer.
While largely mirroring McAteer's conclusions and preliminary MSHA findings, the UMW report also provided a few interesting details that haven't previously been disclosed or made clear.
First, the report discloses that government investigators found a methane monitor in the mine's longwall section that was so undamaged and clean of dust and dirt that it appeared new.
Nearby, the union said, investigators found the remnants of a piece of ventilation curtain that appears to have been directing the flow of fresh air directly at the monitor, diluting any methane that might have been detected and making the monitor ineffective.
The UMW report discussed the methane monitor in a section of its report devoted in large part to recounting the fact that top mine officials Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead spent about four hours underground immediately after the explosion, unsupervised by government officials.
"It is not clear at this time what actions they may or may not have taken with respect to this methane sensor," said union spokesman Phil Smith. "However, since they have both asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, we may never know."
Massey officials have said Blanchard and Whitehead were trying to save lives, and did not tamper with anything underground after the explosion.
The UMW report also includes some new maps and descriptions of how the explosion shot in all directions, and then circles back on itself, leaving a wake of death and destruction underground. It points out that forces from the blast shot up through a former coal-transportation tunnel and scorched the roof of an adjacent mine.
And, UMW investigators believe that they isolated a specific -- and allegedly illegal -- change in ventilation by Massey officials that led to airflow problems and a methane buildup that allowed the initial ignition.
UMW officials offered more than a dozen recommendations for action and reforms, ranging from a new grand jury to investigate top Massey officials to more staffing for MSHA, independent probes of all major mining accidents, and a rule to outlaw the use of airlock doors instead of traditional ventilation control systems.
"While knowing the causes of these types of disasters is important in trying to prevent them in the future, it is also important for lawmakers and regulators to admit that after so many coal mine tragedies, it is time to stop the rhetoric and take real action to protect miners' health and safety," the union said in its report.
The UMW report acknowledged that "industrial homicide" is not a specific crime in West Virginia, but said, "There is evidence that the company's conduct interfered with the proper performance of mine health and safety laws and regulations to such an extreme extent that the union believes that [the] government would be able to prosecute company representatives under applicable criminal provisions for their roles in permitting the dangerous conditions in the UBB mine that killed 29 miners."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.