May 17, 2010
Contact:
Anna Christopher, NPR


   

UPPER BIG BRANCH MINERS TELL NPR NEWS
OF SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS WITH AIR FLOW AND VENTILATION

NPR NEWS INVESTIGATION: FBI LOOKING INTO POSSIBLE TAMPERING
WITH AIR QUALITY SAFETY MONITORS

Six weeks after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners, the cause remains a mystery. NPR News correspondents Howard Berkes and Frank Langfitt interviewed ten men who worked at the mine – many still employees of Massey Energy – and most point to persistent problems with air flow and ventilation systems. An NPR News Investigation has also found that the FBI is looking into possible tampering with safety monitors that detect dangerous levels of methane as part of its criminal investigation of the explosion.

This report is available now at NPR.org; the complete story is airing tonight on the newsmagazine All Things Considered (visit www.npr.org/stations for local broadcast times). Audio of the report will be available at NPR.org at approximately 7PM (ET).

Berkes and Langfitt have been covering the explosion from the beginning, and recently spent several weeks in West Virginia talking to men who worked at Upper Big Branch and with a Massey Energy executive in Richmond. Miners say that the complex air flow plan that regulates the build-up of methane and coal dust was constantly changing in the months before the blast, and that it never seemed to work. One former supervisor tells NPR: "They wouldn't fix the ventilation problems. I told them I needed more air. They threatened to fire me if I didn't run enough coal." Another miner says of the air flow system, "there was constant confusion," and a third that management didn't "have a clue how to ventilate this place." In response to the miners' statements, Massey director Stanley Suboleski tells NPR: "I would be just astounded that somebody would tell them to run coal without proper ventilation."

Berkes and Langfitt report that federal safety inspectors, too, were alarmed about Upper Big Branch’s airflow problem for months. In January and again in March, inspectors found air flowing through part of the mine in the wrong direction. The inspector called the incident one of "high negligence." A Massey mine foreman says getting the air flow right was a persistent problem. One miner recalls walls being constructed one day and torn down the next. Suboleski attributes any confusion to federal government mandates to make changes to the air flow plan – changes Massey opposed and that he says actually decreased the flow of fresh air to a critical area before the blast.

NPR has learned that the ventilation plans are part of the FBI’s criminal investigation, and it is also very interested in looking into possible tampering with methane monitors. These devices warn miners, and even shut down mining machines, when methane approaches dangerous levels. Two miners say they told the FBI they never saw anyone tamper with monitors; others say they’d heard of this dangerous practice in the mine, but no one offered evidence to NPR that it occurred.

Berkes and Langfitt have been extensively covering the mine accident and its aftermath. Last month, NPR News exclusively reported that the FBI was investigating the accident and looking into possible bribery of Mine Safety and Health Administration officials and criminal negligence on the part of Massey. All of NPR's archived reports on this disaster are available at NPR.org.