UBB probes to focus on science: Blankenship

MASSEY Energy chairman Don Blankenship is seeking to clear up what he calls “misunderstandings” regarding the investigation into the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in April.
UBB probes to focus on science: Blankenship UBB probes to focus on science: Blankenship UBB probes to focus on science: Blankenship UBB probes to focus on science: Blankenship UBB probes to focus on science: Blankenship

Don Blankenship

Donna Schmidt

Blankenship, who hosted several media outlet representatives including the Associated Press in a conference call last Friday, said the company would focus on cause before determining if it could have taken steps to prevent the blast.

“What we're trying to do is actually avoid the focus on culpability and figure out what happened,” he said.

"The focus ought to be on the physics, the chemistry, the math, the science ... and figuring out what we could do to prevent it from happening again, rather than try and point fingers."

While it is too soon to assign blame for the blast, Massey holds that changes to the mine’s ventilation plan ordered by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration contributed to the explosion.

As per findings in a preliminary review, MSHA maintains that coal dust and coalbed methane played a role in the incident at the Raleigh County, West Virginia mine. Massey, which disregards the coal dust theory, feels that a sudden inundation of natural gas led to the event.

The adjustments MSHA ordered, Blankenship said, went against the best method for controlling excessive gas levels underground and increased air flow in active areas.

“[We were] required to make changes in UBB we didn't believe in," he said.

"Five days later, there was an explosion."

Blankenship said that while Massey investigators were able to accompany federal officials underground, the company was not being treated as a partner in the investigation. He also noted to the media that he had not been personally subpoenaed by authorities to testify about the blast.

Massey’s investigation, meanwhile, is making progress – but the internal probe could be completed sooner if MSHA cooperated with its efforts, he said.

At this time, no company staff have been suspended or fired based on the findings of Massey’s investigation. It has also settled or is in settlement discussions with “nine or 10” of the 29 victims’ families.

"The underdog in this situation is not the government. The underdog is not MSHA," Blankenship said in the conference, which wrapped more than two hours after it began.

"The underdog is the coal industry and the [coal] companies. So, to the extent you want to root for the underdog you need to root for the companies, because we're definitely powerless when it comes to the government."

MSHA spokesperson Amy Louviere did not respond to an ILN request for the agency’s comments by press time, but she did tell NPR that operators carried the responsibility to develop their own workable ventilation plans.

"The problems come from the mine operator failing to follow its plan," she said.

She added that scrubbers at some of Massey’s operations had not been approved for use because they inadequately control coal dust.

“There is no MSHA policy banning the use of scrubbers, as evidenced by the fact that approximately 50 per cent of Massey mining units are permitted to operate their dust scrubbers on continuous mining machines,” Louviere said to Bloomberg Monday.

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