The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced a redoubled enforcement focus on ventilation in underground coal mines, as the investigation into the Upper Big Branch explosion reveals severe ventilation concerns there.
MSHA issued four "program information bulletins" related to ventilation, mostly as a reminder to mine operators of ventilation law -- including the directive that all changes in ventilation plans must be reported to the agency.
The Post-Gazette reported Sunday that the inquiry into the April 5 blast in Montcoal, W.Va., has revealed that the supply of fresh air in the longwall section of the mine was cut in half sometime in March as workers rushed to finish work in another section of the mine to prepare for the next coal harvest.
The explosion killed 29 miners, the deadliest mine disaster in four decades. Investigators believe that a buildup of methane gas was a contributor to the blast and are looking into whether the ventilation was adequate for a mine known to be particularly gassy.
MSHA cites testimony from the victims' families and former Upper Big Branch miners at a U.S. House field hearing in Beckley, W.Va., as reason for the new directives. Multiple witnesses at the May hearing spoke of ventilation concerns at Upper Big Branch before the explosion.
"This announcement serves to remind all mine operators of their obligation to comply with all federal regulations to ensure the health and safety of their employees," said MSHA head Joe Main in the release. "Failure to follow the ventilation standards can lead to illness, injury and death. These standards are not voluntary, and every mine operator in the country is on notice that MSHA will not tolerate violations of ventilation standards."
In addition, Mr. Main said, "Mine inspectors are being instructed to beef up enforcement of ventilation standards."
The ventilation plan at Upper Big Branch has been a point of contention between mine owner Massey Energy and MSHA for months, with Massey claiming its original ventilation plan would have provided more fresh air but was nixed by MSHA. The agency issued more withdrawal orders -- in which all or part of a mine is shut down to remedy an urgent safety problem -- at Upper Big Branch in 2009 than any other mine in the country. Many of the orders were for ventilation concerns.
MSHA claims the mine repeatedly did not follow federal law for ventilation plans, and was cited for those lapses.
Daniel Malloy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.