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Inspectors found negligence at West Virginia mine months before blast

The search for four missing miners ended Friday night, days after a methane explosion killed 29 at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal.

On the same day, an inspector observed "float dust present" that workers told him had been present for two weeks. The inspector noted that float dust, very fine coal suspended in the air "is very combustible."

Company displeased

The company made its displeasure known. On Jan. 7, mine superintendent Gary May "indicated that he felt the mine is now heading in the right direction with safety," and he complained that he "feels as though MSHA personnel comes here expecting the worst," the notes say.

On Jan. 12, six people gathered to meet with an inspector, including Blanchard, who "said nothing," according to the inspector's notes. May "voiced his displeasure with the word [illegible] in the order," the notes say. Another senior Performance Coal executive added that the "men now have the right to shut anything down that need be repair it [sic] and that they are trying to encourage people to do the right thing the first time," the notes say.

But safety problems continued.

On Jan. 19, an inspector found one area with coal dust six inches deep, four feet wide and 100 feet in length along a conveyor belt. It had existed for six shifts, the inspector's notes say, and he warned that "if accident occurred it would result in permanently disabling injuries from fire or smoke inhalation."

On Jan. 20, an inspector found a cable that wasn't sealed in a section that was "very wet." He said that the cable wasn't wet inside but that "fatal" risk was present because "the area is very wet and electrocution could result."

Former inspectors said people analyzing the Upper Big Branch disaster would probably weigh whether a similar problem might have ignited the explosion that took place later.

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