Massey takes on MSHA shortcomings in UBB letter

UPPER Big Branch mine owner Massey Energy has again taken issue with MSHA, responding to points the two have been at odds over, including ventilation, scrubber use and evidence pertaining to the April explosion that Massey feels has been destroyed by the agency.
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Donna Schmidt

In a 12-page letter dated September 30, the Virginia-based producer provided its own take on the explosion and highlighted its stance of safety first, production second.

Officials said Massey was “quite proud” of its safety record, and noted that safety performance records have exceeded the national industry average for the past 17 of 19 years.

“Massey has been, and remains committed to, making the investigation as transparent as possible. While the focus of attention has been on Massey, the public, government officials and the media should be at least as skeptical about MSHA,” the letter explained.

“No one should assume that MSHA always knows what’s best for miners or that its directives to mine owners are the product of careful, thoughtful application of best practices to ensure safe mining.

“Nor should they assume that MSHA is always objective, knowledgeable, and fair in its enforcement of the mine safety laws.”

Ventilation tops MSHA’s shortcomings

In a review of what Massey believes to be the federal agency’s shortcomings, the company looked to the absence of an independent accident investigation board.

It used as an example the importance of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airplane crashes instead of oversight group the Federal Aviation Agency.

The bridge to the UBB blast, the company said, is the fact that MSHA had ordered several adjustments to the mine’s longtime ventilation system plan prior to April 5.

A review of safety conditions at the Raleigh County, West Virginia mine shortly before the explosion was also deemed acceptable, while hundreds of citations were issued to the operation for violations that were approved before the incident.

“As a result, MSHA has shown that it has a vested interest in demonstrating that the agency’s ventilation changes and regulation practices did not contribute to the accident, and yet it is the principal accident investigator and will pass judgment on Massey,” officials wrote.

“But will MSHA pass judgment on itself? No matter how well intentioned, MSHA has a conflict of interest – all the more reason that there should be an independent investigation.”

The UBB mine owner further focused on its ongoing disagreement with MSHA on the mine’s ventilation plan, an issue that began in 2009 when local agency personnel informed the operation that it would be required to implement the “Pittsburgh seam ventilation model” – the first in its federal district (MSHA District 4) to use the plan.

The mine’s engineers resisted the plan, as it had been operating under an internally designed plan for 14 years.

Despite issues with the federal plan that caused many violations and resulted in several mine closures, Massey officials said MSHA continued to pressure the plan’s adoption.

In the time before the blast, the company said MSHA required ventilation changes at UBB that resulted in negative effects on longwall air.

In addition to less airflow to the working face, the new plan also restricted airflow through the gob, and the mine’s continuous mining areas.

“Dirty exhaust air from the continuous miner sections, which contain dust and methane, was not permitted by MSHA to pass through the most direct return airways to the exhaust fan,” the company said.

“Instead, this exhaust air was forced to take a circuitous route that added a layer of difficulty and complexity to UBB’s ventilation system.

“It would have been more efficient to simply vent the bad air away from the miner sections to the outside.”

The changes, Massey officials concluded, and disregard for the company’s objections to the adjustments, shows the agency did not appreciate UBB’s specific conditions and therefore did not understand the potential ramifications of an inappropriate vent plan.

“Equally troubling is the fact that MSHA officials showed a persistent unwillingness to consider the views of Massey engineers who know the mine in great detail and operated it for more than a decade without an explosion,” the company said.

MSHA’s scrubber stance

One of MSHA’s most misguided areas of oversight of health and safety, Massey said, is its stance on scrubber use.

“Although there is no reason to believe that MSHA’s ban on scrubbers contributed to the UBB explosion, the agency’s decision to ban a proven health improving technology and its failure to provide an adequate explanation for the decision are troubling,” the letter said, pointing to a federal order that took scrubbers off 62 of their 132 continuous mining machines and also prohibited other central Appalachian operations from running CMs with operating scrubbers.

With scrubbers powered off, the company said federal officials then required it to switch to an exhausting ventilation system, which sends a lower airflow velocity to the face and is less effective at diluting face methane.

While an exhausting system with scrubbers off carries dust away from shuttle car operators, dust still remains in the mine air and creates a hazard for downwind workers.

“We simply do not understand MSHA’s logic and we believe it represents an example of how the agency often acts in an arbitrary and opaque manner,” Massey wrote.

“The scrubber example serves to highlight that the agency appears ill-equipped to understand the actual impact of its regulations in mines; unfortunately, the consequences of MSHA’s actions actually increase the risks to the health and safety of our miners.”

Looking at the agency’s response in the investigation of the UBB blast, Massey officials said the disagreement on ventilation issues only highlighted the need for the federal investigation to be open.

The restriction of full access for the probe only reflects unfavorably on MSHA, the company said, after the review into April’s BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico was completely open.

“While there is no independent, expert organization to conduct the investigation into the UBB accident, openness and transparency in the investigation by MHSA would help ensure that it does a complete, credible job of determining the cause of the accident,” Massey noted, adding that the investigation instead appeared to be “an in bureaucratic posturing and self-protection”

Looking specifically at investigators’ findings with relation to handheld gas monitors at the mine post-explosion, which included surge readings within a three-minute span the day of the explosion, Massey said the data logged through testing was important and strongly suggested what its internal investigators believe occurred – that the detectors were exposed to a sudden inundation of methane and a simultaneous, or near simultaneous, fire or explosion, as measured by high levels of carbon monoxide.

UBB mine crack – intentionally disturbed?

Massey team members have reviewed methane gas readings from UBB, and said its investigators have reported that all the mine’s seals remained intact during the explosion.

This evidence, according to its analysis, indicates the elevated gas levels were not a direct result of the blast.

A significant point of contention between the operator and MSHA, however, has been the discovery of several crack in the mine’s floor.

The location of one – beneath the shearer’s cutting drum – could have provided the needed spark to ignite escaping gas.

Massey investigators continue to analyze the 36-foot long rupture as a possible source; conversely, it said, MSHA has prematurely dismissed it.

“However, MSHA has been fully unwilling to allow Massey experts to investigate the crack and has intentionally disturbed it, damaging a vital piece of evidence,” officials wrote.

“Their actions are difficult to understand, particularly given the previous known episodes of methane outbursts from similar cracks at UBB and nearby mines in the same coal seam.

“Notably, another mine in the same region as UBB experienced a similar outburst around the time of the April 5 accident.”

Massey owns up to issues

With the investigation still ongoing – state officials said some answers may be known next year while no indications of timeline have been released on the federal probe – Massey is working to see where it can learn and apply lessons from the explosion.

“We have discovered mistakes that were made at UBB and have moved to fix them,” the company said.

“While we do not believe these mistakes contributed in any way to the accident, we are disclosing them in the interests of transparency and accountability.”

First, operations management has found that track which should have been removed from the longwall gate road was still in place.

While its presence was not illegal, it creates a potential hazard as a possible electric current pathway.

Second, both company crews and federal regulatory staff moved some non-permissible equipment on that track, which the producer said may have been the result of confusion for individuals who may not have known that recent adjustments in the ventilation plan had altered what was permissible.

Finally, Massey’s own best practices were violated by the use of air-lock doors on some locations, as opposed to overcasts, to route fresh air past neutral airways. This issue is also not against regulations, as the doors were fully approved.

Through a review of the mine’s activities before the incident, the operator said it also found errors in its previously-reported non-fatal injury (NFDL) rates for 2007 through 2009.

Reported correctly, the rates rose from 2.05 to 2.63 in 2007; rose again from 1.94 to 2.52 in 2008; and increased in 2009 from 1.67 to 2.33 (all figures verified independently).

“While the company is disappointed in the lapses in its reporting procedures, it recognizes that the revised NFDL rates for the 2007, 2008 and 2009 calendar years still rank better than the industry averages for those annual periods,” it noted.

Finally, Massey did admit to a high rate of serious federal violations, called D violations, in 2009 and 2010.

It cited the complicated MSHA-imposed ventilation design for many of the violations, but also said it made efforts to resolve the problems by assigning two safety specialists to address the violations, which were rectified to the agency’s satisfaction.

With the help of the pair of experts, UBB’s D violations dropped 85% from 47 between April and October 2009 to seven from November 2009 to April 2010.

Keep watching International Longwall News for more details on the Upper Big Branch mine explosion investigations.

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