Company officials had worried about violations at mine before explosion

By David A. Fahrenthold and Kimberly Kindy
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; A04

CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Massey Energy officials were so concerned about a "very large number" of serious safety citations at the Upper Big Branch coal mine last year that they dispatched a two-person safety team to work there full time, company leaders said Monday.

In a news conference in Charleston, company officials also pointed a finger back at the federal regulators who had repeatedly cited them for safety violations before an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5.

They said the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration had indirectly caused a reduction of fresh air getting to an area deep inside the mine by requiring the company to use a "complicated" ventilation plan that Massey engineers resisted. Federal officials responded by saying the changes they required were necessary to ventilate the mine properly.

Ventilation will be a critical issue in the investigation into the explosion. Experts think the blast may have been triggered by a buildup of gases, such as methane, or flammable coal dust inside the mine.

The Massey officials, including chief executive Don Blankenship, said they still did not know what triggered the explosion. They released new data showing that, in the minutes before the blast, foremen deep inside the mine had reported finding very low or nonexistent levels of methane.

"No hazards were found" by the foremen, said Massey Director Stanley C. Suboleski, who served on the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission under the Bush administration. "And methane measurements ranged from zero to nearly zero."

Three weeks after the explosion, government investigators have not been able to enter the Upper Big Branch mine because it remains full of dangerous gases.

At Monday's news conference, Massey officials detailed their financial help to the families of the 29, including a plan to ensure that widows receive the equivalent of the lost miner's paycheck until they remarry or die. The company will also provide health benefits for 20 years and a scholarship for dependent children to attend a West Virginia college.

Company Director Bobby R. Inman, a retired Navy admiral and former director of the National Security Agency, defended the company against allegations that it puts profits ahead of safety. He called the charge a "big lie" originally spread by union officials and a plaintiff attorney.

But Massey officials did not offer many details about two important revelations: that the company had been concerned about repeated safety citations at Upper Big Branch, and that federal inspectors may have helped make the mine's ventilation worse.

The company said that, between April and October 2009, the mine had received 47 citations called "D Orders," the most serious type of safety violation. Because that was an unusually large number, the company dispatched two "safety professionals" to the mine.

The company noted that, in the period after that, the number of serious violations had declined. From November 2009 to April 4, the day before the blast, there had been seven such orders, the company said.

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.

"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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