Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mine boss ordered methane monitor deactivated weeks before deadly explosion

UPDATE, Aug. 3: Massey told survivors of the blast that methane monitors "weren't disabled in a key section of the coal mine," Kris Maher reports for The Wall Street Journal.

UPDATE, July 16: The incident reported Thursday by NPR was not an isolated one at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, former employees tell NPR. Mangers repeatedly used the same false justification about mine safety law allowing a machine to be operated for 24 hours without its monitor as long as the operator took frequent hand-held methane readings to justify the action, Howard Berkes reports. One miner, who spent 13 years at Upper Big Branch, told NPR he'd seen monitors disabled in this same way as the one disabled just weeks before the April explosion 50 to 60 times. "Based on our understanding," Badge Humphries, who represents the Massey shareholder groups that filed the suit against the organization, told Berkes, "this information, which appears to be misinformation, this policy … was promulgated by the management of Upper Big Branch. Where it came from above that remains to be seen." (Read more)

Three weeks before the explosion that killed 29 coal miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., a mine supervisor ordered an electrician to disable a methane monitor on a continuous mining machine because the monitor repeatedly shut down the machine, National Public Radio reports. "Everybody was getting mad because the continuous miner kept shutting off because there was methane," Ricky Lee Campbell, a 24-year-old coal shuttle driver and roof bolter who witnessed the incident, told Howard Berkes of NPR. "So, they shut the section down and the electrician got into the methane detector box and rewired it so we could continue to run coal."

Methane monitors are mounted to the 30-foot-long continuous miners because methane released as the machine cuts into rock and coal can be ignited by sparks from the cutting of rock. The continuous miner with the disabled monitor "was working in an entryway about three miles from the location of the deadly explosion in April," Berkes reports. Two other witnesses confirmed the incident but asked not to be named "because they fear for their jobs, their families and their futures," Berkes writes. Campbell was fired by Massey and has filed a whistleblower claim against the company based on other complaints about safety.

Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater did not deny the incident but said, "The methane monitor was bypassed in order to move the miner from the area that did not have roof support to a safer area for repair." Also, "Two of the witnesses say they don't believe excessive methane gas forced the monitor to shut down the mining machine," Berkes reports. "They believe the monitor was simply malfunctioning, which is a common problem underground." Several miners told NPR they believed it was legal to disable a monitor and still operate the machine for 24 hours if the operator carries a hand-held detector and check readings every 15 minutes. However, Edward Clair, who retired last year after 22 years as the chief attorney for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told NPR the practice is "not permitted, and I think it is clearly in violation of the law." (Read more)

Difficult conditions inside the Upper Big Branch mine have slowed investigators, Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports, which may delay a definitive report on the accident till year end. Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine-safety official who was appointed as special investigator into the explosion by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, said "investigation teams have encountered dangerous roof conditions that had to be repaired, as well as water gathering in locations that hampered traveling in the mine," Maher writes. (Read more)

No comments: