Mine-rescue teams are ready to re-enter the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia for the first time since they brought out the last of 29 victims nearly two months ago.
The mine-rescue specialists from state and federal mine safety agencies, and from mine owner Massey Energy, will go into the mine Wednesday morning, according to the agencies.
Explosive gases and coal dust, and what might be a smoldering fire, have kept crews out of the mine and have delayed the underground investigation of the April 5 blast that left 29 mine workers dead. It was the deadliest mine disaster in the U.S. in 40 years.
What Caused The Blast?
Teams of investigators are anxious to scrutinize the mine for causes of the deadly explosion. But they may have to wait as much as two weeks more, said Leslie Fitzwater, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
"It could take two weeks for exploration of the entire mine," Fitzwater said.
The exploratory work by mine-rescue teams will include testing for lingering gases and coal dust.
"We had some spikes in carbon monoxide readings and methane and a little bit of hydrogen, so we want to do that first," Ron Wooten, West Virginia's director of mine safety, said in an interview with MetroNews.
One area underground of special concern is the location of the long-wall mining machine that was operating at the time of or just before the explosion. Readings after the blast indicated a "fire or heating event" in that area. That in combination with methane gas is a possible source of ignition and another explosion.
Crews on the surface have been drilling a bore hole into the long-wall section and it could punch through as early as Wednesday, said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The bore hole helps ensure adequate airflow in the long-wall area, reducing the risk of explosion.
"After MSHA is confident that no fire or heating exists in the long-wall area, a complete and thorough examination of the entire mine will be conducted," Louviere said. "After the examination has taken place, the investigation will begin."
The examination will include any needed repairs in the mine's ventilation system and other measures that make the mine safe for investigators.
"We are pleased that the first step in the underground investigation is scheduled to begin," said Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in a written statement last week. "We are eager to begin a thorough investigation into the root cause of the accident."
Results Not Immediate
When it's safe to move underground, investigators will work in teams of four. Each team will include representatives from MSHA, the state mine safety agency, Massey Energy and the United Mine Workers union, which officially represents miners in the search for a cause of the blast.
As for the investigation and any results, Fitzwater, the spokeswoman for the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, said, "We don't expect news for weeks."
The investigation on the surface has continued despite the inability to work underground. MSHA has conducted interviews with federal mine inspectors who worked in the Upper Big Branch mine, according to a source familiar with the investigation. MSHA investigators have also interviewed Massey Energy miners who worked in the mine before the blast, Louviere told reporters last week.
A criminal investigation is also under way. The FBI is looking into potential criminal negligence on the part of Massey Energy and possible bribery of MSHA officials, according to a source familiar with the federal criminal investigation.
The source said that the search for collusion and bribery involving Massey Energy and MSHA has turned up nothing so far.