July 14, 2010
Contact:
Anna Christopher, NPR


   

UPPER BIG BRANCH WORKERS DELIBERATELY DISABLED METHANE MONITOR MONTHS BEFORE FATAL EXPLOSION, MINERS EXCLUSIVELY TELL NPR NEWS

NPR NEWS INVESTIGATION AIRING TOMORROW ON MORNING EDITION, DETAILS AVAILABLE NOW AT NPR.ORG

An ongoing NPR News Investigation into the fatal April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia has uncovered evidence that, two months prior to the disaster, mine workers deliberately disabled a monitor designed to measure methane gas levels on a mining machine. Former and current miners with Massey Energy, which owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, tell NPR correspondent Howard Berkes that they witnessed an electrician rewiring the monitor in February, to continue operating a mining machine after the methane monitor repeatedly shut down. Cutting rock and coal without a working methane monitor is potentially illegal; NPR has previously reported that the FBI is looking into possible tampering with safety monitors as part of its criminal investigation of the explosion.

The report from Berkes is available now at NPR.org; the complete story is airing tomorrow on the newsmagazine Morning Edition (visit www.npr.org/stations for local broadcast times). Audio of the report will be available at NPR.org at approximately 9AM (ET).

Ricky Lee Campbell, a former Upper Big Branch miner, describes the February 13 incident to Berkes: “Well, the day that I witnessed them do it, we weren’t running coal. They wasn’t getting no production. And everybody was getting mad because the continuous miner kept shutting off cause there was methane. So they shut the section down and the electrician got into the methane detector box and rewired it so we could continue to run coal. …I asked them, y’know, ‘What, what’re you doing.’ And they told me, ‘we’re bridging a methane detector. We’re bypassing this,’ is what they said.” Late today, a subpoena arrived for Campbell. He's been called to testify before a federal grand jury in Charleston, WV, in two weeks.

Two other witnesses, who declined taped interviews for fear of being fired, confirm the bridging incident; all three are also clear that the electrician was ordered to bridge the monitor by a mine supervisor.

Berkes reports that continuous miner machines have methane monitors mounted on them. The monitor shuts down the machine when explosive levels of gas are detected. According to the witnesses, this continuous miner was cutting rock on the roof when it kept shutting down. Two of the miners who spoke to NPR believe the monitor was malfunctioning – that dangerous levels of methane weren’t present. They also repeat a widespread misconception that it’s legal to bridge a malfunctioning monitor; in fact, Berkes reports that mining machines cannot cut rock or coal without working monitors.

In a statement to NPR, a Massey Energy spokesman confirms that the bridging incident occurred on February 13, but says it was necessary to move the mining machine to a safe area for repair. It shut down, the statement says, in an area without roof support. Berkes reports that temporary bridging is permitted; but the witnesses tell NPR that the machine continued to operate, after the monitor was bridged.

Berkes, together with correspondent Frank Langfitt, has been investigating the mine accident and its aftermath. NPR News has previously reported that the FBI was investigating the accident and looking into possible bribery of MHSA officials. All of NPR’s archived investigative reports on this disaster are available at NPR.org.