Massey Eyes Methane As Cause Of Mine Blast
MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
NPR's Howard Berkes explains.
HOWARD BERKES: 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.
CHRISTOPHER SCHEMEL: 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.
DON 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: 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:
ELLEN SMITH: 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.
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.
BRUCE DIAL: 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: Howard Berkes, NPR News, Washington.
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