Feds Link Gas, Dust to West Virginia Mine Fatalities

by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter
Feds Link Gas, Dust to West Virginia Mine Fatalities

WASHINGTON, DC (HNN) – The Mine Safety and Health Administration has blamed a small methane gas ignition fueled by excessive coal dust for the Upper Big Branch disaster on April 5, 2010. MSHA released findings Wednesday, Jan. 19, after holding a private meeting Tuesday, Jan. 18 with family members of UBB miners.


The report is not considered final. That report will come in two to three months.


According to MSHA and NPR, sparks from a longwall mining machine which hit a sandstone layer in the top of the coal seam theoretically  triggered the April 5 explosion which killed 29 miners. The 1,000 foot device had been cutting a coal seam when sparks ignited methane gas which seeped in from either a mined out area or from cracks in the mine floor. Investigators believe explosion traveled for more than two mines in the UBB underground mine.


In addition, sprayer systems wet down coal dust that while floating is highly explosive. On April 5, components of the water funneling safety systems --- fire suppression, water spraying boom disconnected, clogged or missing shearer sprayers ---  had malfunctioned based on remarks by four people who have examined the explosion evidence at the Raleigh County mine.  


These revelations have been added to the wrongful death suit as “conditions that created a circumstance that allowed an explosion to happen, which never should have happened,” attorney Mark Moreland told NPR.


Moreland insists that if the circumstances prove truthful then the mine would have not been operating in accordance with law. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of WV has an on-going criminal investigation into the tragedy.


Massey Energy , which operated the UBB mine, released the following statement through General Counsel Shane Harvey:


Massey representatives were not present at MSHA’s family briefing or press conference, nor were Company officials briefed by MSHA on the issues they covered. Based on media accounts, however, we have some understanding of MSHA’s working theory.

Our findings are different than MSHA’s working theory, as we understand it. We do not currently believe that there were issues with the bits or the sprays on the shearer that contributed to the explosion. We likewise do not believe that coal dust played a meaningful role in the explosion. We currently believe the mine was well rock dusted and that the mine exploded due to an infusion of high levels of natural gas.

We plan on discussing our findings with the UBB families as soon as possible and we will brief the media in more detail at a later date. We are also very interested in meeting with MSHA officials to understand their conclusions.


In short, Massey disputes the broken safety equipment allegations and insists that a massive influx of natural gas from deep below the mine rushed through a crack so quickly that safeguards were overwhelmed.


During a phone media briefing, MSHA stressed that poor maintenance allowed the initial fire to spread out of control. The agency stated a belief that badly worn teeth on the mining machine allowed excessive amounts of coal dust to coat much of the underground mine before the blast.

Agency administrator Kevin Stricklin told media, “We’ve always taken a position that explosions are preventable.”


The worn teeth of the shearing device and broken sprayers were not cited in a report made 20 minutes prior to the explosion, Stricklin said. That report stated that ventilation of the area was proper and no methane had been detected.


However, MSHA relied upon inspection logs before the blast which stated eight of nine conveyer belts had excessive dust beforehand and after the blast samples revealed excessive coal dust throughout a wide area.


Two of the men who perished attempted to flee to safety but MSHA said the men burdened by boots, belt and equipment managed to run 500 yards in about 90 seconds before a fireball ripped through the mine.



MSHA has posted to its website a new PowerPoint presentation summarizing its investigative activities and findings to date. HNN emphasizes that the results are PRELIMINARY and THEORETICAL.  The presentation by the agency to family members is available by clicking the following:



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