The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Montcoal Mine Disaster

April 15, 2010

Manchin orders mine inspections

Miners to ‘stand down’ in honor of blast victims

CHARLESTON — Manchin called it a “stand-down” and told reporters Wednesday he expects all mine operators and workers to honor the idea.

“This is not a day off,” the governor stressed. “This is not a closure. This is not a shutdown whatsoever.

“If they don’t go to work, they’re not honoring our fallen heroes.”

The governor also ordered the immediate inspection of the state’s more than 200 underground coal mines. His executive order tells state regulators to start checking mines that have repeatedly had combustion risks over the last year.

Highly explosive methane gas is believed to have played a role in the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine. The levels of gas have also been a constant problem since the explosion, preventing crews from finding four missing miners for several days and this week keeping investigators from going underground to look for a cause of the blast.

Manchin wants the high-priority mines inspected within two weeks. His order said inspectors who find such risks or other health or safety violations can partially evacuate the mine or close it.

Moreover, Manchin’s executive order hiked the required percentage of rock dust in sampling in both intake and return airways to 80 percent, up from the 65 percent unchanged since 1926. Rock dust is needed to dilute coal dust and prevent explosions.

In requesting Friday’s production halt, Manchin said the one-day pause is a means of reassessing safety procedures and would pay tribute to the 29 workers killed in the massive explosion at Montcoal.

Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine, said a work stoppage was an appropriate way to honor the miners killed.

“Massey will use this as an opportunity to reflect on the events of April 5th and will focus our attention on safety and training,” the statement said.

If the rest of the industry complies with Manchin’s request, about 1 million tons of coal will not be mined, based on 2008 production data, The Associated Press reported. At roughly $60 a ton, the stoppage could cost about $60 million in lost production.

In the same news conference, the governor emphasized miners have the right under federal law to refuse to work if they suspect a workplace is unsafe.

And if a miner feels intimidated by his boss over job security when conditions appear dangerous, Manchin suggested he would personally intervene.

“Every miner that works at any mine should be able to shut down an unsafe situation and should be empowered to do that,” he said.

“If there are repercussions, you call me. If someone threatens you with your jobs because you’re not going to work in an unsafe condition, you call me.”

Manchin was flanked by several key lawmakers, including Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, an official of the United Mine Workers of America who said coal workers can leave an unsafe work site under the MINER Act, inspired by the 2006 underground explosion that killed a dozen miners at Sago and an underground fire that claimed two miners at Aracoma.

Manchin called on miners to use the one-day break to examine all safety procedures.

“Go to your work shifts and recommit yourselves in honor of the fallen brothers that you have,” he said.

“You will review all your safety practices and you will commit yourself to having the safest workplace so no other family member, no other miners, will go through what we just had to endure in our state.”

Ron Wooten, head of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, told reporters the investigation likely will take months.

“We don’t know what went wrong,” Manchin said. “But we’ll find out.”

Wooten said the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Co., was checked for methane gas shortly before the explosion but in a different section than where the blast occurred.

“We don’t know what happened,” he said. “But we’re going to work hard to try to find out precisely what happened.”

In his four-decade career, Wooten called it the “biggest thing I’ve seen.”

“This is a very large mine, covering several miles,” he said, adding a full-scale inspection blanketing the entire complex could take days, weeks, even months.

“This is an expansive area. It has to be mapped, almost lump of coal by lump of coal.”

Wooten said the inspection made before the explosion was in the south end and uncovered no sign of methane, which officials tentatively believe was the culprit.

“We’re asking for a stand-down of one day,” Manchin said of his call to halt production to re-examine safety policies.

“I don’t think there will be one mine or miner that won’t honor those fallen heroes for that one day.”

Manchin is expected to call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session this spring and indicated they might work on new safety legislation — if warranted by the Upper Big Branch tragedy.

“We’re looking at everything humanly possible right now,” he said, noting this prospect is under review by his legal staff and Wooten.

A federal-state inquiry by both Wooten’s agency and the Mine Safety and Health Administration is in progress and will include a public hearing.

Manchin said he wanted to spare grieving family members from being put before an excessive number of hearings.

“I don’t want to put the families through three or four, just because everybody wants to have a hearing,” he said.

Wooten said he might conduct interviews of rescue team captains at the federal mine academy near Beckley.

Manchin quoted one survivor, who underwent treatment at Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley, that he not be questioned by officials for now.

“When I’ve put all my friends and fellow miners to rest, I might be able to talk,” the governor quoted him as saying.

Manchin added, “There’s a lot of healing going on right now.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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