W.Va. mine inquiry focuses on air cutback
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The struggle to feed two working sections from the same source of air may have played a pivotal role in the fatal blast that tore through 21/2 miles of the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5.
Investigators are poring over mine maps amid testimony that the supply of fresh air on the face of the mine's massive longwall section was roughly halved sometime in March as workers in a nearby section pressed to complete the setup for the next longwall area before the current one was exhausted.
Among the items under scrutiny, according to sources close to the investigation, is a collection of air-lock doors that witnesses have said were sometimes opened to shift air between the two sections.
The blast at the mine in Montcoal, W.Va., run by Massey Energy, followed a snowstorm of withdrawal orders and citations for unwarrantable failures of the mine's ventilation plan. An analysis of those orders and citations issued in all longwall mines operating in the United States shows that Upper Big Branch accounted for 37 withdrawal orders -- the highest number issued -- in the past two years.
"It's a known fact that Upper Big Branch had the most orders," said Kevin Stricklin, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's head of coal oversight.
But also during that period, MSHA officials devoted fewer inspection hours to Upper Big Branch than 30 of the 40 U.S. longwall mines. Mr. Stricklin said many factors account for the difference in inspection hours, including a mine's size.
The mine with the second-highest number of withdrawal orders -- New Era/Galatia in Saline County, Ill. -- received 24 withdrawal orders over the same two-year period but had three times of hours devoted to inspections.
The numbers paint a portrait of a coal mine with a history of serious ventilation citations and more orders than any other. Yet it appeared to receive less scrutiny than most of the other longwall mines.
Ventilation is one of the most crucial aspects of mine safety because of the need to guarantee a flow of fresh air to work spaces deep inside the earth while flushing away potentially explosive methane and airborne coal dust.
Since the disastrous 2006 explosion that killed a dozen workers at the Sago Mine near Buckhannon, W.Va., Congress rushed to enact mine safety legislation calling for new standards on safety seals, underground rescue chambers and oxygen supply units deep in the earth. Mr. Stricklin and other safety officials noted, however, that too many mines, despite knowledge acquired over more than a century, fail to adhere to basic safety tenets.
"If you do the correct things and you have your basic things in places such as ventilation, rock dusting, roof control and examinations, you'll never have to use these rescue type of devices," Mr. Stricklin said.
A combination of methane and coal dust is suspected in the Upper Big Branch explosion, in which 29 men died -- the worst mining disaster in 40 years.
State and federal investigators probing the blast, along with FBI agents who have opened a parallel criminal investigation, are focusing on what some witnesses have said was an abrupt fall in the amount of air crossing the face of the longwall a month before the explosion. Sources with direct access to information on the closed-door interviews said coal company employees stated airflow dropped from 100,000 cubic feet per minute to roughly 50,000 cubic feet per minute.
Investigators believe the mine's air supply problem stemmed from a circuitous route taken by fresh intake air and the competing demands of both the longwall -- where coal was being cut -- and the 22 Headgate and 22 Tailgate areas --the so-called "development" section where miners were racing to have entryways cut for the next massive harvest when the current longwall was to be exhausted around the end of May. With the longwall cutting complete and a new section not yet developed, the mine's massive cutting equipment could sit idle, slowing coal production.
"You like to have a photo finish. If your longwall panel is finished and there's no place for that big boy to go, usually somebody's in trouble," said Ron Wooten, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
Investigators now are looking at a series of doors set up inside the mine that appear to have been used to shift airflow and whether those shifts required advance approval. Under federal regulations a major air change -- usually meaning a shift of 9,000 cubic feet per minute or more -- constitutes a change in the ventilation plan and, under law, must be approved by MSHA's district director.
Upper Big Branch was dotted with doors, including double sets designed to provide air locks that would prevent a shift in the flow of air, as well as others marked as regulators -- doors specifically designed to allow a modification in the flow of air.
In January, these doors became the focus of an order issued by federal inspectors who cited the mine for a shift in airflow they declared "reasonably likely" to cause injury or death. The return air course -- the air taking gases out of the mine -- was entering a secondary escape route used by workers on the longwall section.
"This air," the order notes, "is used to ventilate the face of the active longwall section."
The action taken to terminate this violation, according to the order: "A door was shut on the No. 2 section and air returned to the direction shown on the approved map." The description in the citation strongly suggests that air was somehow being swapped between the longwall and the development section.
"We've talked to miners who worked there and said, 'I worked on the section, and we were always calling for air,' " said Dennis O'Dell, director of safety for the United Mine Workers union.
The movement of air in that fashion, said Pittsburgh lawyer Bruce Stanley, is consistent with what he said he found when he represented the widows of two men who died at another Massey Mine, Aracoma Coal Co.'s Alma No. 1 mine in Logan County, W.Va.
"They supposedly have their air-lock doors," Mr. Stanley said. "The doors are supposed to be shut at all times in order to create the barriers to facilitate the ventilation plan. Regularly, they would be left open, locked open, to feed air."
Massey has sparred with MSHA over ventilation plans, and the company last month filed suit challenging MSHA's ability to dictate those plans. Massey officials have said that MSHA's forced changes to its ventilation plan reduced the flow of air, which MSHA disputes.
MSHA has said it does not dictate plans, and approves or rejects them depending if they comply with the law. In the case of Upper Big Branch in the last year, those plans often did not.
In September 2009 and again in March, MSHA ventilation experts said surprise inspections showed air was moving in the wrong direction across the longwall face.
According to an agency memo, those were two of 23 citations MSHA handed out at Upper Big Branch for failing to follow the mine's ventilation plan or making unapproved changes to it between September and the fatal blast April 5.
Upper Big Branch miners have added to the ventilation concerns. At a May field hearing of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee in Beckley, W.Va., Upper Big Branch miner Stanley "Goose" Stewart, who barely escaped the explosion, testified to persistent ventilation problems on the longwall.
"Mine management never fully addressed the air problem when it would be shut down by inspectors," Mr. Stewart testified. "They would fix it just good enough to get us to load coal again, but then it would be back to business as usual. The longwall worried me because of the ventilation."
Steve Morgan, father of 21-year-old Adam, who died in the explosion, testified that his son frequently spoke of ventilation problems in the mine. A trainee, Adam Morgan often would hang curtains on his own to direct airflow in the longwall section.
"He said, 'Ain't these curtains supposed to be up?' " Steve Morgan said. "I said they have to be up to make sure all the ventilation is right. Just about every shift he worked he had to do some kind of ventilation repair."
First Published August 15, 2010 12:00 am