Massey rejects U.S. findings on fatal coal mine blast

By Vicki Smith
Saturday, January 29, 2011

MORGANTOWN, W.VA. - Massey Energy Co. on Friday rejected nearly every part of the federal government's theory on what caused the deadly explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia last spring, killing 29 men.

The Richmond-based coal company doesn't think that worn shearer bits, broken water sprayers or an excessive buildup of coal dust contributed to the blast, Vice President and General Counsel Shane Harvey said.

Instead, Massey continues to argue that there was a sudden inundation of natural gases from a floor crack that overwhelmed what it insists were good airflow and other controls that should have contained the blast.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has played down the significance of the crack, arguing that it was not venting methane and that any explosion is preventable with proper safeguards. It presented preliminary findings from its continuing investigation last week, saying Massey records and evidence from inside the mine point to poor maintenance as the cause of the blast.

Harvey acknowledged that the shearing machine that cuts the coal may have somehow ignited the gas but said the company's own investigators haven't determined how. Massey won't issue its report on the explosion until after state and federal investigators release theirs, he said.

The MSHA didn't immediately respond.

The April blast was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years and is the subject of criminal and civil investigations, as well as lawsuits by some of the victims' families.

Massey briefed reporters in a Charleston hotel while some relatives of the fallen miners and their lawyers got a more detailed report in a separate room, its door guarded by two men. Harvey said not all the families were represented, but there were 28 people, including lawyers.

The federal investigation continues, but preliminary findings suggest that worn and broken equipment contributed to the initial fire and made it impossible to put out, while poor housekeeping allowed excessive amounts of explosive coal dust to accumulate. The MSHA also said tests showed that some of the machine's 48 water sprayers for controlling dust and dousing sparks weren't working.

Federal investigators think the explosion started when worn teeth on the shearer created a spark that ignited as little as 13 cubic feet of methane. They think coal dust mixed with the methane to create a blast so powerful that it turned 90-degree corners, rounded a 1,000-foot-wide block of coal and built enough force to kill men more than a mile away.

- Associated Press

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