Massey Floats New Theory For Cause Of Mine Blast

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spoke at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday as his company floated a new theory for the cause of the April 5th explosion that killed 29 mine workers. The theory appears to be the latest attempt by the company to deflect criticism of its own safety practices.

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Massey Energy is floating a new theory today about what caused that massive explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners. The company says a sudden influx of methane gas could be the culprit. But federal mine- safety officials say that's unlikely.

Massey's theory was announced just before CEO Don Blankenship made a rare public appearance in Washington, D.C. Reporters were there, including NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES: Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is probably one of the most vilified executives of the moment. Certainly, that's what the union protesters seemed to think as they marched on the sidewalk in front of the National Press Club today.

(Soundbite of protesters)

Unidentified Man: How many people have you killed today?

Unidentified People: Hey, Blankenship, what do you say? How many people have you killed today?

BERKES: Even inside, three protesters quietly disrupted Blankenship's speech about energy economics and environmental policy. With 29 of his coal miners killed in April and a history of safety citations and fines, Blankenship is a magnet for protests. But he continued his strenuous defense of Massey Energy.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): The thing that most is disturbing in the press is the idea that we as Appalachianers or as coal miners or as executives don't really value life - 'cause we certainly would never put profits above safety. And no one would want to experience the feeling of informing 29 families that theyd lost their loved ones.

BERKES: Blankenship made one reference to his company's new theory: that the deadly blast at the Upper Big Branch Mine was caused by a massive influx of methane gas, an infusion so vast and powerful it overwhelmed all safety systems.

Mr. BLANKENSHIP: We didn't expect a large inundation of gas that it appears that we had. So we thought the mine was safe, but the main thing is that the laws of physics pay no attention to the laws of the politicians. They only pay attention to the science and the math.

BERKES: In other words, this was a natural disaster that could not be prevented. Massey's theory goes like this: There were cracks in the mine floor near the longwall mining machine hit by the explosion. They could've been sources of methane. And the mining machine's cold cutting sheers, as they're called, could've provided the spark.

Massey also points to unusually high readings of methane the day of the blast. But they were taken five and a half hours later. The Mine Safety and Health Administration says elevated levels of methane after an explosion are expected. Mine safety consultant Bruce Dial agrees.

Mr. BRUCE DIAL (Mine Safety Consultant): It's convenient, let's put it that way. You know, if they had a rush of methane and are saying, well, they can't control that - well, it'd be awful convenient for them.

BERKES: Less convenient would be a finding that a methane monitor was disabled so that a mining machine that encountered excessive methane, or that simply malfunctioned, would not automatically shut down as designed. NPR reported just such an incident involving a continuous miner last week. And multiple Upper Big Branch miners told NPR that disabling the monitors was a common practice.

Blankenship said today that one of those monitors on the relevant longwall mining machine has been inspected and was not disabled.

Mr. BLANKENSHIP: We don't believe in bridging out methane monitors. Again, 7,000 people working hundreds of days a year, you can have most anything happen.

BERKES: Which is what Blankenship and Massey Energy seem to want the world to believe - anything can happen. This theory is just the latest attempt by the company to sow doubt about any suggestion Massey itself is somehow responsible. A spokeswoman for the Federal Mine Safety Agency says it is too early to report the status of that methane monitor Blankenship referred to - and certainly too early in the investigation to say what happened on April 5th.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Washington.

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