The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 12, 2010

MSHA: No results yet in UBB mine blast probe

Official vows to keep looking for answers

By Jim Workman
Assistant Managing Editor

— While the cause of the explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine still has not been determined, Mine Safety and Health Administration Director Joseph Main promised Wednesday, “We are going to scour the earth to find out what happened at Upper Big Branch. We will leave no stone left unturned.”

Main and MSHA Coal Administrator Kevin Stricklin conducted a conference call with the media Wednesday morning to give updates on the investigation of the April 5 disaster.

“The bottom line is there has not been enough evidence or information amassed yet to make any kind of determination as to the cause of the disaster,” Main said. “We’re hoping that with the investigating process, we’ll provide those answers.”

The statements came one day after an update was given to UBB family members in a private meeting.

“(Tuesday) we met with the families of the miners and updated them on the progress of the investigation,” Main said. “The news is we are moving closer to the completion of the interview process and the underground investigation phase, but we are not there yet. We still have a bit of work to do. Once we do that, we will be announcing the scheduling of the public hearings.

“We have not reached a conclusion of the cause of this disaster. We’re still collecting evidence.”

Main estimated the investigation of the mine is at about “50 percent.”

“Underground, we have mapped a large portion of the mine, but we still have a large portion left to map,” he explained. “We have teams that go in and methodically document all of the pieces of equipment, damage of the explosion and any significant pieces of evidence that the investigation teams find — self-contained, self-rescue locations and other things that would be vital to have a current understanding of the effects of this explosion. We are piecing together the cause.

“There are two areas that have not been thoroughly examined,” he added. “We’re in the process of conducting tests and retrieving equipment.”

The investigation teams consist of 10 rock dust teams “that are scraping the mine walls to determine the amount of noncombustible material that may have been in the mine at the time and to also analyze the coping aspect,” Main said, adding it has been “a pretty in-depth process.”

Other investigating parties include eight mapping teams, four electrical teams, three photography teams, a flames forces team (which identifies the flames’ path and the impact of the forces of the explosion), a geological team and an evidence collection team.

“To date, we have collected about 250 pieces of physical evidence that have been removed underground from the mine,” Main revealed. “That number will grow. They’re being tested to provide information for the cause of disaster.”

As of Tuesday, 166 interviews, mostly with hourly employees of Massey, have been documented.

“We are working with state of West Virginia, that’s part of the interview process,” Main said. “We’re now issuing subpoenas on a routine basis with regard to witnesses that are requested to come in. We anticipate this to be a pretty steady process from here until the conclusion.”

“We made the decision that we’re going to subpoena everybody,” Stricklin said. “It’s been with the rank and file (workers), but now we’re going to get into the upper management in the next month or so. They’re going to be treated the same as the hourly employee. We want them all in here and we want to interview all of them.”

Methane detectors are believed to hold significant evidence.

“We have collected eight methane detectors that were used underground prior to the explosion,” Main said. “These eight have been sent to our MSHA tech support facility. Four of them have been downloaded to pull the data from them. There are still tests on those units yet to be conducted. We believe there are still units missing in the mine. We’ll continue to search and bring them out and send them to the lab, as well, to be tested.”

“We can’t confirm that they haven’t been tampered with,” Stricklin said. “That’s the position we’re taking. We’re not accusing anyone of anything, but we basically want to rule everything out before we can say they weren’t tampered with.”

There have been conflicting reports about a significant crack in the mine floor. Massey has issued statements describing a crack as large as 150 feet long.

MSHA reports have disputed this claim.

“From the information that has been shared with me, I have seen nothing to represent a crack that large or have I talked to anybody that has,” Main said. “I’m not sure how that information is being provided.”

Stricklin shared Main’s view on the crack.

“There was a family member that brought that up (Tuesday evening) and said that Massey discussed a 150-foot crack. I’m not sure that there was even agreement within the families about that. But they said Massey showed a picture, and the only picture Massey could have had was a picture that was taken and given to all five of the respective parties. Our investigators underground have not taken a picture of any 150-foot crack.

“What we’ve seen is some floor heaving, which we would expect to see with longwall mining. There are cracks that we would expect to see with longwall mining. But we have not seen any massive cracks that are 150 feet long underneath a shearing machine.”

Massey on Wednesday released a page it says is from a photography log produced by MSHA that seems to confirms a crack in the Upper Big Branch mine floor.

According to the release, the log contains descriptions of photos taken by MSHA. “Photos 0029, 0030 and 0031 correspond with the pictures highlighted on the left side of page six under the ‘Pictures of Crack in UBB Mine Floor’ section on Massey’s UBB website (www.masseyubb.com),” the release states.

It adds that an MSHA photographer took those on July 14. The photographer described the photos with the caption “looking into crack in the floor,” according to the release. The log also notes the photos were taken on the longwall tailgate.

Main expressed his concerns that information that has been disseminated to the families from MSHA and Massey has often times not matched.

“We’re not going to speculate on what’s happened,” he said. “Until we get the facts, and understand what these facts mean, then we’ll start putting out the information to be anywhere conclusive. You have to be honest with (the families). You can’t create these roller-coaster rides for these families to drivel out information that may or may not have anything — they’re going through a very difficult time. You have to be patient with them.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to keep them as informed as we can.

“Whatever Massey may do (in reports to families), we’re not following that course. We’re going to do a through investigation and report the facts.”

Massey’s role in the investigation was also explained in the conference call.

“They’re suggesting to our photography team, what pictures to take,” Main said. “We’ve taken every picture that they have asked us to take. As far as their investigation, I assume they’re doing their own and will have a report as well. They would have reasons behind their conclusions, just like the state would do that, the United Mine Workers would do that and MSHA would do that.”

“Massey is participating in a group at all times, which includes MSHA, the state and the United Mine Workers,” Stricklin added. “They wouldn’t be alone on their own. Basically they’re looking at the same information that we are underground, at the same time. Naturally, people come to different conclusions sometimes.

“I don’t know what Massey’s investigation will show, but I’m confident in my team’s findings. We just want to call it like we see it. Whatever that is. We’re going to report it and move forward and make sure this doesn’t happen again.

“There is no protocol for what we can put out in place, to keep (Massey) from releasing things.”

Stricklin spoke to the length of the investigation that was once estimated to be completed by the end of August.

“One might wonder why it’s taking so much time to get the investigation done,” he said. “There are some cases when we get ready to do work and we have to pull people out — whether it’s a fan going down, a bad roof, gas concentrations coming out of one of the bore holes, communication system being down — it just adds to the fact of this being extended.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to get everything done. Things happen and you have to deal with it as it happens.” 

— E-mail: jworkman@register-herald.com