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Company officials had worried about violations at mine before explosion

Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship, second from right, and board directors speak in Charleston, W.Va., about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. They said they still do not know the cause.
Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship, second from right, and board directors speak in Charleston, W.Va., about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. They said they still do not know the cause. (Associated Press)

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But when asked by a reporter, Suboleski said he did not know what sort of problems had resulted in the orders or what Massey's two-man team did to improve safety at the mine.

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"All I know is, they seem to have done an awfully good job," Suboleski said. "Sometimes it's just a matter of focus and making sure that everybody's attention is in the right place."

On the dispute with federal regulators over regulation, the company said that MSHA inspectors had demanded changes "that made the ventilation in this area significantly more complex." As a result, "the volume of fresh air [getting to one area where coal was being mined] . . . was significantly reduced."

The company said its engineers resisted making the changes, and even shut down production at the mine for two days, before agreeing.

When a reporter pressed Suboleski for details about the dispute, he demurred.

"I'm going to get us mired down in things," he said, adding that it would be easier to explain with a map of the mine and with more time. "It did make ventilation more complex . . . in some ways more difficult."

Later, MSHA released a statement saying that, because of Massey's changes within the mine, the company's ventilation plan was not adequate.

"The system in place could not be effectively maintained by the operator to ventilate the mine," the statement said, in part. "The operator elected to revise the plan." MSHA said there were "adverse mining conditions" in at least one section of Upper Big Branch, including the floor of the mine "heaving," walls falling in, and water accumulating.

But it did not elaborate or explain in detail how it wanted the ventilation plan changed.

Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky lawyer and former MSHA official, said that "if Massey is implying that there is a simple way to ventilate that mine, that isn't true, not for a mine that size. It has five different working sections. Any ventilation plan is going to be complex."

Massey officials said that, on the day of the explosion, the amount of air getting to the area was twice what is legally required. They said they did not know if ventilation problems contributed to the blast.

Kindy reported from Washington.


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