September 2, 2010
Contact:
Anna Christopher, NPR


   

NPR NEWS INVESTIGATION REVEALS NEW CONCERNS ABOUT MASSEY OFFICIALS
UNDERGROUND AFTER FATAL UPPER BIG BRANCH EXPLOSION

HOWARD BERKES REPORTS OFFICIALS SPENT FOUR HOURS IN MINE
AND TRAVELED NINE MILES, UNSUPERVISED

REPORT AIRING TODAY ON "ALL THINGS CONSIDERED,"
DETAILS AVAILABLE NOW AT NPR.ORG

A continuing NPR News Investigation into the fatal April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia has revealed new concerns about what happened in the hours after the explosion. Correspondent Howard Berkes reports that two officials from mine owner Massey Energy were underground unsupervised for four hours after the blast and traveled nine miles, and had been near the longwall mining machine that is believed to be one of three likely sources of the blast. The company says they were trying to rescue people. But some investigators and federal regulators want to know whether evidence was compromised.

The the complete story is airing today on the afternoon 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 reports that the two executives – Chris Blanchard, president of the subsidiary that operates the mine, and Jason Whitehead, then-director of underground improvement and now a Massey vice president – spent four hours on their own in the Upper Big Branch mine, walking nine miles according to Massey Energy. They didn’t have the sophisticated breathing apparatus mine rescuers wear, using instead simpler self-rescue devices stashed underground. Berkes reports that the Mine Safety and Health Administration had issued an order closing the mine to all but official rescuers and authorized activity, and neither Blanchard nor Whitehead were certified rescuers.

Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal mine chief and in the command center on the surface on April 5, tells NPR: "MSHA has to give approval of people to go into areas that are under the K order and in this case the K order was in place for the entire mine. So they shouldn't have been underground…but I was emphatic that I wanted those two guys out of there and at, at the time, it was more for their safety than what it was that I thought anything was being tampered with."

Berkes reports that Blanchard and Whitehead had been near the longwall mining machine that is believed to be one of three likely sources of the blast. Stricklin tells NPR: "There's an issue, whether it occurred or not, there's a question that's gonna come up of whether there was any tampering that took place."

In a statement to NPR, Massey Energy says there was no effort whatsoever to tamper with any evidence. The only goal, the company says, was to rescue fellow miners.

Berkes has been extensively covering the mine accident and its aftermath. In July, NPR News reported that Upper Big Branch miners deliberately disabled a methane monitor months before the explosion. NPR’s archived reports on this disaster are available at NPR.org.