Massey Mine Workers Disabled Safety Monitor Two months before the explosion in April killed 29 mine workers, three witnesses say an electrician was ordered to disable a methane detector, an NPR News investigation finds. Working without an operational methane monitor is dangerous and potentially illegal.
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Massey Mine Workers Disabled Safety Monitor

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Massey Mine Workers Disabled Safety Monitor

Massey Mine Workers Disabled Safety Monitor

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: Three workers on the crew provided detailed accounts of that February morning. Twenty-four-year-old Ricky Lee Campbell is one of them.

RICKY LEE CAMPBELL: Well, the day that I witnessed them do it, we weren't running coal and it wasn't getting no production. And everybody was getting mad 'cause the continuous miner kept shutting off 'cause there's methane. So they shut the section down and the electrician got into the methane detector box and rewired it so we could continue to run coal.

BERKES: The monitor shuts down the machine as the gas approaches explosive levels. This continuous miner was cutting rock at the roof when it kept shutting down.

LEE CAMPBELL: And that's when they done it. I asked them, now what are you doing? They told me, we're bridging the methane detector. We're bypassing it, is what they said.

BERKES: All three witnesses are clear about this: The electrician was ordered to bridge the monitor by a mine supervisor, who had to find somebody to describe the procedure by phone because the electrician didn't know how to do it.

LEE CAMPBELL: The electrician said, please don't say nothing. He says I'll lose my card if they find out. What's - his electrician's card, you know. He knew it was dangerous. He knew he shouldn't have been doing it. But when somebody higher up telling you to do something, you're going to do what they say. And he just done his job and done what they said to do. And, you know, I was just a witness.

BERKES: Two of the witnesses don't believe dangerous levels of methane forced the monitor to shut down the mining machine. They say the monitor was simply malfunctioning. And they repeat a widespread misconception, which was articulated last month by Clay Mullins, a former Upper Big Branch foreman.

CLAY MULLINS: 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: Bruce Dial is a former federal mine safety inspector and trainer.

BRUCE DIAL: They are probably 25 to 30 feet back from the face where the hand units are being used. That means you've got 25 or 30 feet of area that could be building up methane. You could have an explosive atmosphere there before you ever know about it, 30 feet back.

BERKES: Edward Claire spent 22 years as the chief lawyer for the agency before retiring last year.

EDWARD CLAIRE: What makes it criminal is that somebody actively takes steps to defeat the safety protection, and that should be prosecuted. You've put production over the safety of your employees.

BERKES: Former Upper Big Branch foreman Clay Mullins was more direct last month when asked generically about bridging monitors.

MULLINS: That's something that I would not tolerate, because that - that methane monitor is life and death. That is a problem that you correct right away. That's protecting their life and stuff, you know.

BERKES: So here's the key question: Was this incident in February isolated? Could something similar have happened the morning of April 5th before the explosion that took 29 lives? Former federal inspector Bruce Dial responds this way.

DIAL: It wasn't where the actual explosion occurred in that section of the mine. But it still shows me that the attitude of the company, the attitude of the foreman and whoever else knew about this - all the way up to superintendent or whomever - this is their attitude, that production is the most important.

BERKES: The Massey spokesman also echoed board member and former chief operating officer Stanley Suboleski, who told us in May that he was astounded that the company's miners might disable monitors.

STANLEY SUBOLESKI: 'Cause the company would never condone an action like that. We would immediately fire anybody that - if we heard of an action like that occurring. It's just not tolerated in the company.

BERKES: The FBI is actively investigating the incident and has been for months. That and the witness accounts have former mine safety and health solicitor Edward Clair thinking this incident is neither benign nor isolated.

CLAIRE: You can't help thinking that if you've discovered it one time that it's indicative of an attitude of noncompliance, thumbing your nose at the law, within that company.

BERKES: Howard Berkes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see a timeline of problems at Massey Energy mines by going to NPR.org.

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