Federal mine safety officials urged caution Wednesday in the wake of conflicting reports about the investigation of the April coal mine disaster in West Virginia that left 29 mineworkers dead.
"There has not been enough evidence and information amassed yet to make any kind of determinations as to the cause of the disaster," said Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
Main spoke the morning after a private briefing for the relatives of victims of the massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine.
That briefing at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy outside Beckley, W.Va., was attended by about 60 lawyers and family members, including Sherry Mullins Scurlock, whose brother Rex died in the tragedy.
"Everyone leaves these meetings frustrated," Scurlock said. "You're sitting in these meetings and your insides are just going crazy because you want to know what happened but still there's no answer, [no] definitive answer to what happened."
Spurlock and other victims' relatives have been given official information in occasional briefings that are weeks apart. The weeks in between have been filled with leaks about the official investigation and a concerted effort by Upper Big Branch mine owner Massey Energy to present its own theory about the tragedy.
Massey officials conducted a family briefing of their own on Aug. 2 and said the blast may have been caused not by neglect nor production pressure nor a criminal act, but by a natural event, a massive influx of methane through a giant crack in the mine's floor. Much of what federal officials said in their briefings this week attempted to counter the Massey view of possible causes of the explosion.
"I have seen nothing to represent a crack that large nor have I talked to anybody that has," Main said.
Kevin Stricklin of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said that pinning the blast on a methane outburst would not relieve Massey of responsibility.
"Explosions are preventable," Stricklin said, and he then listed measures that would guard against a methane outburst, including:
— proper ventilation of the mine so methane is swept away
— equipment protection that guards against sparks that could ignite methane gas
— regular company inspections of the mine so that flaws can be addressed
— spreading limestone "rock dust" over explosive coal dust so that an ignition of methane does not become a massive explosion
"Those are four key components that we stand by, and we don't think explosions need to occur anywhere," Stricklin said.
Massey Energy has also said that methane monitors recovered from the mine so far and tested by investigators have shown no signs of "bridging," a dangerous and illegal practice in which the safety devices are disabled. Two participants in the testing who are independent of Massey Energy agree.
But Stricklin said there are many ways to disable methane monitors.
"We can't confirm that [the monitors haven't] been tampered with and that's the position that we've taken," Stricklin said. "We have a lot more testing that we need to do. We're not accusing anyone of anything but we basically want to rule everything out before we can say they weren't tampered with."
Stricklin and Main were repeatedly asked by reporters why they give Massey Energy the room to speculate, to fill the information void between briefings.
At first, Main answered this way: "I cannot be responsible for what Massey decides to do to release this information."
But when pressed further about the dearth of information from the federal mine safety agency, Main added: "It's a little bit difficult to dribble out information that you really don't know what it means yet, that may cause more confusion than clarity here.
"And what we're trying to do is pull this information together to show what it means."
Massey Energy responded to the federal mine safety briefings with news releases and photographs purportedly backing the company's claim that the cracks exist and that the methane outburst theory is valid.
"The crack, along with other potential sources in the mine, need to be fully examined by company, federal and state investigators as they continue the ongoing probe into the UBB mine accident," said Shane Harvey, Massey Energy's vice president and general counsel.
Harvey also addressed the issue of tampering with methane monitors in a statement to NPR.
"It is not too early to conclude that the methane monitors on the longwall have not been tampered with," Harvey said. "State officials have reached that conclusion."
Scurlock says she's skeptical of what Massey says but scours the news and the Internet and the meetings for "any drop of information that we can get because we want to know exactly what happened to Rex."
Main and Stricklin did release some new information. They reported 166 interviews with witnesses so far and said they would soon partner with West Virginia investigators to use their subpoena authority to compel testimony from Massey mine managers and executives.
They said about half of the vast disaster zone had been mapped and that access to key areas was hampered by flooding. Investigators have collected 250 pieces of physical evidence and 1,800 samples of "rock dust." Analysis of "rock dust" from the mine will help determine whether the explosion was fed by dangerous accumulations of coal dust. The Upper Big Branch mine has been cited for that in recent years.
Main also said public hearings will be held soon to consider the evidence gathered to date.
A separate criminal investigation is also under way and a federal grand jury in Charleston, W.Va., has been interviewing Upper Big Branch miners about reports of tampering with methane monitors.
Outside the auditorium where the family briefing was held Tuesday night, about 15 pickup trucks, vans and SUVs in the parking lot provided stark reminders of the tragedy.
Each contained decals on rear windows depicting crosses and a pick and shovel. Many included a silhouette of a miner crawling on hands and knees with a headlamp leading the way. And eight carried names, after the words, "In Memory of My Dad" or "In Memory of Our Son."
A black Chevy pickup had the decals on its tailgate, along with the words, "In Memory of My Brother, Rex L. Mullins, 2/1/60 - 4/5/10."
"It is for him not to be forgotten," explains Scurlock, her voice breaking as she talks. "He went into that mine to provide for his family. It's for the memory of him."