Faulty Safety Systems Failed To Stop Mine Explosion
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
We have an update to the mine explosion that claimed 29 lives in West Virginia last year. NPR News has learned that safety systems required by law were not working properly before that blast at the Upper Big Branch coal mine. Some mine safety experts believe these water-based safety systems might have helped prevent the blast if they had all been working together and functioning properly.
Howard Berkes has the latest in NPR's ongoing investigation of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.
HOWARD BERKES: Good to be with you.
SIMON: And what kind of safety systems are we talking about and why were they so critical?
BERKES: We're talking about water suppression systems, a fire suppression system that feeds the long wall mining machine in the Upper Big Branch mine that is believed to be the source of this explosion that took place there. This mining machine has a huge cutting tool called a shearer, and these water systems work to keep coal dust down as the shearer cuts into the coal. It works to keep sparks under control as the shearer sometimes hits rock, and it's there if a fire starts, and it's there also if there's some kind of small ignition that starts. These kinds of water systems can kind of keep that controlled and maybe even snuff it out.
SIMON: But there's a lot to suggest they weren't working properly before the explosion.
BERKES: Well, that's what we've been hearing from the sources that we have who are fully aware of what's going on in the investigation. And what they're telling is that they've found that these water systems were just basically dysfunctional. There's a fire suppression system that our sources tell us was not working and Massey Energy has acknowledged that a hose was manually blocked.
The system that sprays water against the coal and keeps the coal down and sprays the shearer that cuts the coal, that was clogged up. There was evidence, some of my sources say, of nails being hammered into those sprayers, which rendered them useless. And a testing of that spraying device shows that it was not sending out water robustly enough to actually provide the kind of water spray that should have been provided.
And the bottom line on this is that the theory is that a small fireball, as I mentioned, was created by methane gas hitting sparks on this cutting tool. And so the idea is if all this stuff was working, you know, maybe it would've helped tamper that fireball, quench it, control it.
SIMON: But if they weren't working properly, it set in motion circumstances that could lead to an explosion.
BERKES: Well, there's a long history of these small fireballs being created in coal mines where some of these water systems actually put the fireballs out. The federal government actually keeps records of these ignitions, as they call them. And we don't know for sure what would have happened that day, but because these systems weren't working, there wasn't that opportunity for these water systems to have had some impact on that small fireball.
This huge explosion happened, went two miles through the mine. Twenty-nine miners were killed.
SIMON: Howard, what's the status of the criminal and civil cases against Massey Energy?
BERKES: We don't know what's going on with the criminal investigation conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office. They've been completely quiet about that. There are some civil cases underway, and a lawsuit that was already filed was amended yesterday, which not only named Massey Energy as a corporate entity but now also names the board of Massey Energy as defendants.
And it's basically a wrongful death suit and it was filed by families of two of the victims of the Upper Big Branch explosion. And it cites these facts now in the amended complaint.
SIMON: And how close might investigators be to determining what really caused this terrible tragedy?
BERKES: There are strong indications that they have finished up the underground investigation; they have finished up more than 300 interviews - maybe have a few to go - and we think that perhaps by the first anniversary of this tragedy on April 5, we'll have some reports out that will give us a good sense of what happened. And the information that we've now reported is part of that good sense that they have of what might have taken place.
SIMON: NPR's Howard Berkes, thanks so much.
BERKES: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: You can find an animated map illustrating possible causes of the Upper Big Branch explosion on our website, NPR.org.
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