Massey Eyes Methane As Cause Of Mine Blast

An information vacuum in the investigation of the deadly mine disaster in West Virginia in April has mine owner Massey Energy suggesting possible causes of the explosion. The latest involves a massive infusion of methane gas before the blast.

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The owner of the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia has a new theory on why that mine exploded in April, killing 29 workers. Massey Energy suggests the blast could be blamed on natural forces. But federal mine safety officials say the notion does not make sense.

NPR's Howard Berkes explains.

HOWARD BERKES: Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was already expected to make news Thursday, at a luncheon at the National Press Club here in Washington. But news flowed even before the salad forks were laid out, from mining engineer Christopher Schemel, who was assisting the company in its own investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster.

Schemel said in noisy conference call with reporters that federal data indicates a sudden and intense infusion of explosive methane gas before the deadly blast.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER SCHEMEL (Consultant, Massey Energy): What we can tell from the data is that on April 5th, a large amount of methane was released into the UBB Mine. The data also suggests that this release was sustained at an elevated rate, even five and half hours after the incident. This methane is a distinct possible source of this explosion.

BERKES: And it could've been a natural source, he says, with the methane emanating from cracks in the mine floor, which are common underground. Schemel describes a methane outburst so vast and powerful it overwhelmed safety systems required by federal regulators. That prompted this from CEO Don Blankenship after dessert at the National Press Club.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): 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: But there's one big problem with this scenario: There's absolutely no evidence so far that this onslaught of methane gas occurred before the blast. In fact, the last methane readings before the explosion barely detected any gas, a Massey spokesman acknowledged that in response to an NPR question.

The only known readings that were so high and alarming were those taken more than five hours later, and they might have this simple explanation:

Ms. ELLEN SMITH (Managing Editor, Mine Safety & Health News): There was a significant explosion in the mine. That, in and of itself, could have also released methane.

BERKES: Ellen Smith is a two-decade veteran of Mine Safety & Health News, an industry newsletter. And in the past, she adds, the same coal seam had yielded major methane outbursts like this without overwhelming safety systems and without big explosions. She suggests Massey Energy is engaged in an information offensive.

Ms. SMITH: They're trying to uphold their reputations. Their stock values are down. You know, they're under a massive criminal investigation. And they are going to do anything they can do to say to the public, we did things right.

BERKES: The Mine Safety and Health Administration says in a statement that high methane levels are expected after explosions underground. There's also something missing from Massey's theory, according to mine safety consultant Bruce Dial. The company doesn't mention coal dust, he says, which is a key ingredient in huge explosions, and it's something Massey could have controlled.

Mr. BRUCE DIAL (President, Dial Mine Safety): So, as the methane explodes, then it causes all of the coal dust in the area - on the floor, walls, ceiling, equipment, everywhere - it's going to get it up in the air. And then each little particle of coal becomes an explosion in itself. And you get all those little particles exploding at the same time, then that's how you get that big ball of fire going out through the whole mine.

BERKES: There are ways to control coal dust, and Massey Energy has been cited for failing to do that adequately at the Upper Big Branch Mine. In one instance, federal inspectors found coal dust as much as two feet deep.

Dial and Smith and the mine safety agency and Massey Energy all agree on one point: They all say the cause of the blast won't be known for sure until the disaster investigation is complete, and that could be months away.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Washington.

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