Inspectors found negligence at West Virginia mine months before blast

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010; A02

Federal safety inspectors who visited Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine early this year said senior managers showed "reckless disregard" for worker safety by telling a foreman to ignore a citation the mine had received for faulty ventilation, according to the inspectors' handwritten notes.

The notes, made available after a request by The Washington Post, illustrate the growing frustration of regulators about safety issues in the West Virginia mine and the resistance of Massey officials to enforcement action in the weeks before an explosion there killed 29 workers.

The notes, from inspections in early January, say the president and a vice president of Massey Energy's Performance Coal subsidiary told a foreman at the Upper Big Branch mine "not to worry about it" when he spoke to them about a ventilation problem cited by federal mine safety inspectors three weeks earlier. They told the foreman "it was fine," according to the notes, citing the account of a mine employee.

Although the ventilation problem at issue in January was repaired, inspectors investigating the cause of the deadly April 5 blast are focusing on ventilation issues that might have contributed to a buildup of highly combustible methane and coal dust.

The notes also suggest friction between the mine management and the inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Company executives took issue with the wording of some safety citations and complained that the MSHA was being too tough, the notes say. Massey has gone on to appeal many of those citations.

Asked to comment, a Massey spokesman issued a statement saying: "Massey's Board of Directors has instructed counsel and mine experts to conduct a full evaluation of events, and it would be premature to comment on specific violations before they have had time to finish. It's important to note, however, that all MSHA violations must be abated. Most citations are corrected the same day, often immediately. For those that require more time, a deadline is given by MSHA to correct the situation."

The details

The MSHA redacted the inspectors' names before making the notes available to The Post. From the handwriting, it appears that two inspectors paid several visits to the company in January.

The sharpest words in the notes came Jan. 7, when an unidentified mine employee told an inspector that a serious ventilation problem -- air flowing the wrong direction in an intake duct -- had not been fixed because Performance Coal President Christopher Blanchard and Vice President Jamie Ferguson had instructed a foreman, Terry Moore, to disregard the issue. As previously reported, the foreman said he had known about the problem for three weeks.

The MSHA inspector went on to say that "the operator has shown a reckless disregard of care to the miners on this section and [eligible] men that use this escapeway." He added later that "I believe the operator has shown high negligence due to fact of management knowing where problem is." He said the ventilation flaw could "result in fatal injuries" by sending methane to the coal face where drilling was taking place.

Also on Jan. 7, the second inspector wrote that miners appeared to have spread "rock dust" -- similar to lime applied to gardens -- in an effort to mix an inert substance with the combustible coal dust that was accumulating in one area. "Section was very sloppy," the inspector noted, voicing concern about the coal dust.

On Jan. 11, another inspection turned up more fire hazards. A roller on a conveyer belt line carrying coal out of the mine was out of place and was rotating "in combustible material measuring from 1 to 6 inches," the inspector wrote.

At a nearby location, the same inspector noticed a belt rubbing against something. It was "warm to the touch," he said, adding that "I witnessed smoke." That violation had existed for "at least two months" without being repaired, the notes indicate.

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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