- The Washington Times - Monday, April 26, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 workers, and what caused the disaster remains unknown, the mine’s owner said Monday.

Massey Energy Co. board director Stanley Suboleski said the samples were taken by foremen as part of a shift change exam of the mine, just “tens of minutes” before the blast. The examination also showed that air flow in the Upper Big Branch mine was fine.

“All the indicators are that at the start of the shift, everything was OK,” said Mr. Suboleski, a mining engineer.

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Two other miners were injured in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, which was the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

Massey held a news conference Monday to address several issues related to the explosion. The news conference was held a day after President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III led a memorial for the fallen miners.

Massey board director Bobby Inman called allegations that the company put profits over safety a “big lie.” He blamed such sentiment on plaintiffs lawyers and leaders of the United Mine Workers union. The union said Monday that it would help investigate the blast.

Mr. Inman also repeated the board’s recent expression of confidence in Massey Chairman and Chief Executive Don Blankenship, who has come under fire in the wake of the disaster.

Massey is facing a shareholder lawsuit stemming from the explosion, as well as wrongful death litigation and mounting scrutiny from regulators. Mr. Inman said the handful of institutional investors suing or calling for Mr. Blankenship to resign hold about 2 percent of the company’s stock but have gotten “disproportionate public treatment.”

Investigators have detected high levels of two potentially explosive gases inside the mine, and it could be a month before investigators can get inside to determine what caused the blast. Federal regulators have identified highly explosive methane gas, coal dust or a mixture of the two as the likely cause of the blast, but the ignition source is unknown.

The explosion will be the subject of a Senate hearing on Tuesday, with the nation’s top mine safety official expected to testify.

Mr. Obama has ordered a broad review of coal mines with poor safety records and urged federal officials to strengthen laws.

Meanwhile at the news conference, the company also promised to provide the families of the miners killed with financial packages that will include five times their miner’s annual pay as life insurance benefits. Also included will be an additional payment to surviving spouses, health coverage both for them and dependent children, and four years’ worth of college or vocational education at any accredited school in West Virginia for those children.

Director Robert Fogelsong said accepting those benefits would not prevent the family from pursuing any legal claims. The widow of William Griffith already has filed a wrongful death lawsuit, while the mother of Adam Morgan has won a court order preserving relevant records and potential evidence from the disaster.

“I’ll have to talk to my lawyer about that,” Janice Quarles, widow of miner Gary Quarles, said of the financial package. The couple’s two children are 9 and 11.

Associated Press staff writers Tim Huber and John Raby in Charleston contributed to this report.

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