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Probe into fatal W.V. mine explosion finds large amounts of volatile coal dust

By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 2:28 PM

Federal mining officials investigating the cause of the fatal explosion at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine said Friday that more than 1,400 rock samples taken from the mine contained large amounts of highly combustible coal dust, in violation of federal law.

Mining Safety and Health Administration officials would not speculate about how this may have factored into the April 5 disaster that claimed the lives of 29 miners. However, coal dust accumulations and dust from improperly treated rock in a mine's ceilings and walls can and have fueled the worst mining explosions in the world.

"I think it would be fair to say that coal dust played a role," MSHA Administrator Kevin Stricklin said. "We aren't in a position to say how big of a role coal dust played."

The test results from the rock samples were released during a Friday morning conference call with reporters. Stricklin also said that 90 percent of the federal government's investigation into the Massey Energy Co. mine is now complete.

Massey officials said that the coal dust evidence probably was compromised during the explosion. They also said that MSHA officials used the same dust specialist who previsely had his work rejected in 2005 by an administrative law judge.

"MSHA's narrow-minded focus on compromised coal dust evidence is doing a disservice to those UBB families entitled to concrete answers unequivocally supported by accurate scientific findings and the facts," Massey said in a prepared statement. "Sadly, MSHA appears to be more interested in proving itself right, even if the evidence suggests the agency's presumptions are wrong."

MSHA officials stood by their findings that showed 79 percent of the 1,803 samples were not in compliance with federal law.

Strickland and Labor Department Assistant Secretary Joseph A. Main also provided details about other investigative findings. The probe has determined that the explosion probably occurred earlier than previously believed - at 3:02:40 in the morning rather than 3:27 a.m. Methane detectors, retrieved from the mine, were used in the new calculation.

Investigators have collected 260 pieces of evidence in addition to the rock samples and taken more than 3,000 underground photographs. They have conducted 235 interviews, including some with Massey management, and still have about 20 additional interviews to do. MSHA officials have not yet determined whether they will ask to interview Massey Chairman and chief executive Don Blankenship.

During the two years before the explosion, MSHA had issued eight citations for improper rock dusting at the Upper Big Branch mine. Main said that MSHA is reviewing its inspection methods for identifying and remedying this problem in mines.

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