RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And now a follow-up to a story we brought you yesterday. We told you about an incident in February at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. Workers said that a protective methane monitor was intentionally disabled, and yet a mining machine that cuts coal continued to run. Methane monitors are considered crucial for the safety of miners. Two months after that episode, in another part of the mine, 29 workers were killed in an explosion.
In his story yesterday, NPR's Howard Berkes posed a key question: Was this an isolated incident? Howard is back now with an answer.
HOWARD BERKES: No. That February incident was not isolated, according to four former Upper Big Branch miners, who also described what seemed to be a Massey Energy practice that justified the disabling of methane monitors.
This is dangerous, because coal mines produce an explosive mix of methane and sparks, and monitors shutdown mining machines when excessive methane is detected or when the sniffing device malfunctions. The law says mining must stop until the monitor is fixed or replaced. But conventional wisdom says this, according to miner Clay Mullins in yesterday's story.
Mr. CLAY MULLINS (Miner): It does say in the law that if you got a methane monitor malfunction, you can bridge it out and you can run that machine for 24 hours. But the operator has to carry a methane detector, and he has to take his checks. I think it's every 15 minutes.
BERKES: This belief is so widespread underground, it's an article of faith for coal miners. Mullins first said he never seen a bridged methane monitor in his eight years at Upper Big Branch. But he was confused by the article of faith. In a follow up phone call, Mullins said he'd actually seen disabled monitors at the mine.
Mr. MULLINS: I would say over the eight years, probably at least a dozen or more times.
BERKES: Here's the difference. When we first asked the question, Mullins didn't include the incidents that fit the article of faith, the so-called legitimate disabling of monitors for 24 hours, because that was OK, according to the mine foreman and superintendent.
Mr. MULLINS: I just followed what they said. I thought it was laws. They said that inspectors would let them alone for 24 hours if they had the parts ordered and they weren't available to them right away.
BERKES: Mullins hasn't worked at the mine in four years, but two other recent Upper Big Branch miners described the same thing in confidential interviews that are part of a lawsuit against directors and officers of Massey Energy. Badge Humphries represents the shareholder groups that filed the suit, and he summarized the interviews in court documents in the case.
Mr. BADGE HUMPHRIES (Attorney): Based on our understanding, this information, which appears to be misinformation, this policy, this training was promulgated by the management of Upper Big Branch. Where it came from above that remains to be seen.
BERKES: Another 13-year veteran of Upper Big Branch told us he'd seen monitors disabled in this same way and with the same explanation 50 to 60 times. He spoke only on the condition we not name him. In all these instances, the mining machines continued to cut coal after the methane detectors were bridged.
That's clearly illegal, and handheld monitors are no substitute, says Edward Clair, who spent 22 years as solicitor of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Clair also finds the whole notion hard to believe.
Mr. EDWARD CLAIR (Former solicitor, Mine Safety and Health Administration): Given the context of a gassy mine, or any mine that liberates a significant amount of methane, this is inconceivable that it would be permitted by responsible mine management. The risks are simply too great.
BERKES: Miner Clay Mullins is more direct.
Mr. MULLINS: If these monitors were faulty and did not work, it's no different than me taking a gun and playing Russian roulette and playing the odds.
BERKES: Mullins' brother Rex died in the Upper Big Branch explosion. In a statement to NPR, Massey Energy says categorically, there is no company policy or practice to operate mining machines and cut coal without working methane monitors while parts are maintained or repaired.
A federal grand jury has begun issuing subpoenas to miners who say they witnessed tampering with methane monitors. It may take that testimony under oath to sort this out.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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