In a report released Tuesday, internal review team members said they had compared the earlier longwall plan from 2006 with the new one MSHA approved in June 2009. They found that MSHA had actually approved Massey's request to reduce the air-flow to the longwall face from 104,000 cubic feet per minute to 40,000 cubic feet per minute -- a far larger reduction that the disaster victims' families had been told. The 40,000 cubic feet per minute included in the approved plan is greater than the 30,000 cubic feet per minute minimum required by federal law. MSHA may require more ventilation if it is needed to protect miners at any specific operation.
The MSHA internal review report said the new longwall plan at Upper Big Branch "was significantly less stringent," than the previous one, and said 40,000 cubic feet per minute of ventilation was "not sufficient to control respirable coal dust and mitigate methane outbursts at the mine." An appendix buried in the report listed at least 20 procedures that were "either relaxed or omitted," including fewer water sprays to control methane and dust and less specific mandates for how dust-control measures would work in the longwall section of the mine.
Internal review team members did not specifically say these changes had anything to do with the explosion, but MSHA's own investigation team said inadequate ventilation and insufficient water sprays on the longwall machine were major contributing factors in the disaster.
The internal review team said MSHA did not have procedures in places to ensure that previous mining plans -- let alone serious accidents -- were considered when new mining plan proposals were being reviewed by the agency.
The team's report also blamed turnover among the supervisors and technical staff at MSHA's district office in Southern West Virginia.
When the earlier longwall plan was reviewed, MSHA's district ventilation supervisor was Bill Ross. Ross left the agency in 2008, before the new plan was proposed, and took a job handling ventilation matters for Massey at Upper Big Branch and other local mines.
Internal review team members concluded that Ross' replacement at MSHA, Joe Mackowiak, was not aware of the previous methane incidents at Upper Big Branch when the new longwall plan was reviewed and approved.
The internal review report said that, after the explosion, documents about the earlier incidents "were not readily available" in MSHA files and were found packed in a box that Ross left behind when he went to work for Massey.
Ross asserted his Fifth Amendment right and refused to answer questions from disaster investigators. An MSHA lawyer blocked McAteer's internal review team from pursuing questions regarding what MSHA officials knew about the earlier methane incidents.
The internal review indicates that at least one local MSHA official, assistant district manager for technical programs Rich Kline, a 15-year-veteran of the agency, knew about the earlier methane incidents, and other MSHA records show Kline signed off on the new Upper Big Branch longwall plan.
MSHA records also show that Lincoln Selfe, a 20-year-MSHA veteran, signed off on the new longwall plan, as well.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.