- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) | High levels of dangerous methane gas made it impossible for rescuers to venture inside a coal mine Wednesday to search for survivors of an explosion that killed 25 workers.

Crews drilled holes to release the gas, but by late afternoon the levels remained far too high for searchers to safely enter the Upper Big Branch mine to look for four people missing in the worst U.S. mining accident in more than two decades. They could not say when they might be able to go in.

Workers wanted to drill another hole so they could lower a camera into an airtight rescue chamber to determine whether anyone had managed to get inside, Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said at a briefing Wednesday.

“If we’re going to send a rescue team, we have to say it’s safe for them to go in there,” Mr. Stricklin said. “We want the air to be clear enough to let them go without being in smoke.”

The disaster has brought new scrutiny for mine owner Massey Energy Co., which has been repeatedly cited for problems with the system that ventilates explosive methane gas and for allowing combustible dust to build up. The federal mine agency on Wednesday appointed a special team of investigators to look into the blast, which officials said may have been caused by a buildup of methane.

Late Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the Massey coal mine was cited for violating two federal safety rules on the day of the blast.

The records do not specifically say whether they were issued before the explosion.

Neither federal mine safety officials nor Massey responded to requests for comment Wednesday.

Records show one of the violations involved inadequate maps of escape routes from the Upper Big Branch mine. Underground coal mines are required to have maps detailing escape routes, oxygen caches and refuge chambers. The other involved an improper splice of electrical cable on a piece of equipment.

Like many other mine operators, Massey frequently sidesteps hefty fines by aggressively appealing safety violations at the mine, according to an AP analysis of mine safety records.

Rescuers hoped the four miners might somehow have reached a chamber where they could survive for four days, though they acknowledged the odds were against them. Rescuers banged on a drill pipe for about 15 minutes after the first hole was complete but got no response.

“We’ve been working against long odds from day one,” Gov. Joe Manchin III said at a briefing Wednesday afternoon.

Seven bodies were pulled out after the explosion, and two miners were hospitalized. Mr. Manchin said Wednesday that one was doing well and the other was in intensive care. Eighteen bodies remained in the mine, but emergency workers were only able to identify four before methane forced them out Monday.

When rescuers can get into the mine, it could take less than two hours for a team to get far enough inside to check for survivors, depending on conditions, Mr. Stricklin said. They would be about 1,000 feet below the surface, and at least 1 1/2 miles from the entrance.

The quality and quantity of coal produced at Upper Big Branch make the mine one of gems of Massey’s operation. The mine produced more than 1.2 million tons of coal last year and uses the lowest-cost underground mining method, making it more profitable. The mine produces metallurgical coal that is used to make steel and sells for up to $200 a ton - more than double the price for the type of coal used by power plants.

Congressman Nick Rahall, a Democrat whose district includes the mine, said Wednesday that at least three Upper Big Branch miners had come to him since the explosion to say they were concerned about methane levels.

Federal regulators probing the explosion plan to review Massey’s safety violations, many of which involved venting methane gas. If the odorless, colorless gas is not kept at safe levels, a small spark can ignite it.

Massey is contesting more than a third of all its violations at the Upper Big Branch mine since 2007. In the past year, federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine. Only 16 percent have been paid.

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