Federal regulators held a briefing today in West Virginia to discuss their investigation into the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration says the explosion on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in southern West Virginia was preventable. In a presentation, MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin outlined Massey’s failures at the mine, including a focus on coal production at the expense of proper safety measures.
“A section foreman was fired for delaying production for about an hour to fix ventilation problems,” he said. “One of the victims was told ‘if you can’t go up there to run coal, just bring your bucket outside and go home.’”
But the company also took active steps to hide safety problems from federal mine inspectors. Stricklin says Massey was keeping two sets of books—one for government inspectors, and another with a more accurate list of safety concerns.
“If a coal mine wanted to keep two sets of books, that’s their own business,” Stricklin said. “They can keep five sets of books if they want. But what they’re required to do is list all the hazards in the official books.”
Investigation teams have been in the mine for the past year, gathering evidence. Eighty percent of the dust samples found in the mine after the explosion were non-compliant, meaning there were higher quantities of explosive coal dust than allowed by law. MSHA’s findings point to the excess coal dust, combined with a spark from mining equipment, as the main cause of the explosion. The equipment was missing several sprayers, which are designed to mist water over the coal and reduce the risk of explosion.
A small amount of methane also contributed, but this is contrary to Massey Energy’s findings that a large inundation of methane and an ‘act of God’ were solely responsible.