Massey Energy Co. has claimed that a federal ventilation plan designed for coal mines with high levels of methane can reduce air flow in mines that produce less of the gas, potentially creating explosive buildups.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration required the plan at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 men died in a suspected methane explosion April 5. The blast is the focus of civil and criminal investigations.
Massey Chief Executive Don Blankenship said in a letter to governors in several states that MSHA required the plan at Upper Big Branch despite a warning about its safety last year by an Illinois coal company, Mach Mining.
But Massey stopped short of claiming the ventilation system caused the Upper Big Branch tragedy.
"We're not ready to say that yet. We're willing to say that it's something that certainly should be looked as part of the investigation and should be looked at by somebody other than MSHA," said Massey lawyer Shane Harvey.
MSHA required a Mach mine in Illinois to use the system last year and is believed to be requiring it at mines in several other states, Harvey said. Mach is appealing citations for violations stemming from MSHA's ventilation plan.
"We think it's a safety issue that affects different states and miners in different states," Harvey said.
In the letter, Blankenship tells the governors of Illinois, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky that the system required by federal regulators is unsafe. All four are major coal-producing states.
MSHA had no immediate comment.
West Virginia mine safety chief Ron Wooten said there's not enough information available to substantiate Massey's charges. "Hopefully the conclusions of this investigation will help all parties fully understand what happened," Wooten said through a spokeswoman.
Virginia plans to review issues raised in the letter as individual mine ventilation plans are submitted, said Mike Abbott, a spokesman for the Department of Mines Minerals and Energy.
The mines in question use a longwall system — a 1,000-foot-long machine somewhat akin to a deli slicer — to extract coal.
The system MSHA is pushing was designed to capture methane in longwall mines working in the Pittsburgh seam in southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia, Massey said. That seam is prone to releasing relatively high volumes of methane.
The company argues that the system is dangerous in seams that release lower amounts of methane because it keeps gas levels closer to the explosive range.
"We can demonstrate, I think, that air flow was reduced after we implemented this plan," Harvey said.
Blankenship charges that MSHA's system lowered air flow to the longwall face and the mined out area behind the machine at Big Branch. The system also sent air containing dust and methane removed from other parts of the mine on a circuitous route to the surface.
Modern coal mines rely on ventilation to dilute methane and flush it out as quickly as possible.
"The air flow under their plan met the minimum requirements," Harvey said. "Ours would produce a lot more air to flush away methane."
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