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, Va.-based coal company doesn't believe 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 crack in the floor that overwhelmed what it insists were good air flow and other controls that should have contained the blast.
MSHA has downplayed the significance of the crack, arguing 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 the shearing machine that cuts the coal may somehow have ignited the gas but said the company's own investigators haven't determined how. Massey won't issue its own report on the explosion until after state and federal investigators release theirs, he said.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration didn't immediately respond.
The April 2010 blast was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years and is the subject of both 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. On a table nearby were black wrist bands with the words "Never forget."
"They're really just contradicting each other," said a frustrated Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died in the explosion.
Massey "put on a good show and had a lot of information to discuss," he said, "... but I would have to lean toward MSHA. I think it's more an accumulation of dust."
Mullins, 52, of Pax, worked in the mine and knew most of the victims. He quit Upper Big Branch three years ago and went to another mine, but he hasn't gone underground since the day his brother died and isn't sure he ever will.
"It's been 10 months, and we don't know no more now than the first day it happened, really," he said. "All we know is we've got loved ones lost, and it's just very frustrating."
The federal investigation is continuing, but preliminary findings suggest 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. MSHA also said tests showed some of the machine's 48 water sprayers for controlling dust and dousing sparks weren't working at the time.
Federal investigators believe the explosion started when worn teeth on the shearer created a spark that ignited as little as 13 cubic feet of methane. They believe coal dust mixed with the methane to create a blast so powerful 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.
Traces of gas continue to flow from the crack, Harvey said.
Harvey disputed MSHA's findings point by point, challenging the scientific validity of samples that showed the mine was not sufficiently coated with white rock dust designed to prevent the coal dust from exploding.
Massey, Harvey said, had reached "a different conclusion from the evidence."
MSHA took most of its samples from the area most affected by the blast, Harvey said, so they are tainted and unreliable. Reports on rock dusting from March 15, just 20 mining days before the blast, showed most of the mine was compliant, he said.
"Twenty days of mining would not have changed the rock dust that much. Only explosion debris could have changed it that much," Harvey said. "... It is just not scientific to take data after an explosion and find it to be meaningful in any way."
"The area affected by the explosion shows poor rock dusting. The area not affected shows, for the most part, good rock dusting," he said. "We don't think it's a coincidence; we think that the explosion effects contaminated the samples."
However, a log book obtained by The Associated Press last fall showed that veteran miner Michael Elswick phoned the surface just 32 minutes before the blast, saying three conveyor belts needed to be rock-dusted.
Elswick was a "good foreman" who wanted to apply some "TLC" to the mine, Harvey said after the briefing,
"He wanted it refreshed before it became a problem," Harvey said.
The company was addressing Elswick's shift report during Friday's family meeting.
Massey also disputed the condition of its water sprayers, noting that while its safety plan required only 109 sprayers, it had 153 in place. Even with eight out of service, "we still had more sprayers than the plan required."
Harvey also disputed the notion that the condition of the shearer bits contributed to the blast. Of 44 visible bits, he said, only two had significant wear. The rest had "shiny carbide tips."
Associated Press writer Brian Farkas contributed from Charleston.
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