CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal mine safety regulators have said they don't know if they ever gave Massey Energy written technical reports that recommended ways to avoid methane problems that have been pinpointed as one of the causes of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration disclosed the potential problem in correspondence sent to Congress just one day after MSHA released the report of its investigation into the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
MSHA chief Joe Main wrote to House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., in response to concerns Kline raised last month about Upper Big Branch and about the circumstances surrounding the April 2011 death of a silver miner in Idaho.
"Our preliminary review reveals that MSHA verbally communicated the results of the technical support investigations, including the recommendations, to both operators at close-out conferences following the investigations," Main told Kline in a Dec. 7 letter. "We are still trying to determine if the mine operators received copies of the technical support reports at the time of the investigations."
At Upper Big Branch, MSHA experts had outlined a variety of steps Massey could take to stop methane leaks from the floor of the Upper Big Branch Mine, following a review of a methane ignition in 1997 and two large methane leaks in 2003 and 2004.
MSHA now believes those recommendations were never followed by Massey, and agency investigators concluded methane leaking from the floor ignited the explosion on April 5, 2010.
"The mine has a history of methane incidents on prior longwall panels," the MSHA report said. "These incidents put the operator on notice for methane hazards on the longwall face."
MSHA cited Massey with "moderate negligence" related to the methane leaks, noting that the company did not implement agency recommendations -- such as drilling de-gasification holes or increasing fresh-air flow to the mine face -- after the earlier methane incidents.
At the Lucky Friday silver mine in Idaho, public radio's Northwest News Network discovered after a fatal roof fall in April that a 2008 MSHA report documenting roof control problems and recommendations for dealing with them had not been provided to mine operator Hecla Mining.
Kline, in a Nov. 30 letter to Main, questioned what he called a "lapse of communication" between MSHA and the mining operators it is supposed to regulate.
"MSHA's failure to transmit these reports raises concerns about potentially systemic problems within MSHA's district offices for both the metal/nonmetal and coal mine divisions," Kline wrote. "Such reports contain important technical recommendations that could improve miner safety. However, this information is useless if the agency fails to put it into the hands of the mine operators."
Kline asked MSHA to investigate its procedures, and determine whether any additional safety reports have not been provided to the mine operators in question, and to examine agency practices to ensure such reports are provided.
Main responded, "I have initiated a complete review of our procedures and protocols for drafting and transmitting technical support reports to ensure that important safety information is shared with all appropriate parties in a timely manner. That review will include the updating of any policies and procedures to ensure that reports are transmitted as expeditiously as possible."