A representative of coal mine owner Massey Energy walked out of a meeting Thursday that was to focus on the company's plans to seal off portions of its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
An explosion at the mine last year killed 29 mine workers in what is now the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.
People attending the meeting tell NPR that Massey's Charlie Bearse, who has led the company's internal investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion, objected to the presence of lawyers Mark and Rachel Moreland.
The Morelands are official representatives of coal miners in the broader investigation into the cause of the disaster. They also represent the families of victims of the explosion in two wrongful death lawsuits targeting Massey.
Massey vice president and general counsel Shane Harvey has no comment on the meeting walkout or the company's specific plans for Upper Big Branch.
"We do have a desire to seal the mine at some point, but need to work out the details with MSHA," Harvey says. "We will provide further detail when we get a plan that all parties agree with."
A Massey Energy map of the mine obtained by NPR (you'll find it below) shows proposed seals that would completely close off the vast area underground affected by the explosion, which traveled two miles in one direction and three miles in another.
Also closed off would be seams of coal that have yet to be mined.
It's not clear whether Massey would abandon the massive longwall mining machine that is believed to be the source of the explosion and a smaller continuous mining machine, as well as conveyor belts and other equipment worth millions of dollars.
"The ball is in Massey's court," says MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere in response to Massey's abrupt departure from the meeting.
The company must also get approval from West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training (OMHST) before sealing the mine. OMHST spokeswoman Leslie Fitzwater had no comment about the meeting but suggested the state is not ready to forego access to the mine.
State mine disaster investigators have "no estimate of when we will no longer need access to the mine in the ongoing investigation," Fitzwater says.
"Once the mine has been sealed, no one will have access to crucial physical evidence," says attorney Rachel Moreland, who accuses Massey of trying to block her investigator from gathering evidence.
The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) also represents the interests of coal miners in the Upper Big Branch investigation.
"We're not finished until the state is finished," says UMWA spokesman Phil Smith. "We want to make sure that if there's evidence that the state uncovers, we want to look at it too."
Federal MSHA investigator Norman Page told the people gathered at the meeting that his agency won't lift its order banning all but investigative work in the mine until the state's investigation is complete.
But Davitt McAteer, who leads an independent team investigating the explosion, says his underground work has concluded. "We've gotten everything we're probably going to get," McAteer says.
There are also safety concerns about sealing the mine, says the UMWA's Smith.
"They're still going to mine coal there," Smith says. "They're just sealing off the area where the explosion took place."
Sealed areas of coal mines can become saturated with explosive methane gas so the seals must not leak.
Massey is the target of a takeover by rival Alpha Natural Resources. The shareholders of both companies meet June 1 to vote on the takeover. Neither company revealed plans for the Upper Big Branch mine in documents recently filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission as part of the takeover process.