- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 27, 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 at the Upper Big Branch mine, just “tens of minutes” before the blast. The examination also showed that air flow in the underground mine was fine.

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

Mr. Suboleski, two other Massey board directors and Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship held a news conference Monday to address several issues related to the explosion, the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

The news briefing was held a day after President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gov. Joe Manchin III led a memorial service for the 29 miners. Two other miners were injured in the blast.

Mr. Blankenship told reporters that the president “honored the grieving families with his presence.” Offering continued condolences to those families, he also offered the company’s thanks to those who have assisted them since the blast.

“This has left us humbled and hurt, and searching for answers,” he said, adding that the company was dedicated to finding out what happened.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued the mine eight citations for violating preshift examination rules in 2010. Mr. Suboleski told reporters that the overall number of violations for this year and in 2009 was comparable to those at similar operations in the Appalachian coal fields. About 60 percent of Upper Big Branch’s violations were deemed “nonserious or nonsubstantial” by inspectors, Mr. Suboleski said.

But Mr. Suboleski also noted press reports that the mine had been hit with an “inordinate” amount of MSHA orders last year alleging the most serious kinds of violations.

Massey assigned two full-time employees to address safety issues at the mine, and the number of those orders dropped by 80 percent in the seven months before the blast, he said.

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 AFL-CIO and United Mine Workers union. The UMW said Monday that it would help investigate the blast.

“The big truth is, 52 people have been killed on Massey property since 2000,” said Phil Smith, a UMW spokesman. “No other coal company has had even half that. The numbers are pretty clear.”

Mr. Inman also repeated the board’s recent expression of confidence in Mr. Blankenship, who has become lightning rod for criticism of the Richmond-based company and its handling of the mine in the disaster’s wake.

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 not known.

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

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide