Coal Tattoo

Massey cited for blasting at Coal River Mountain

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Office of Surface Mining photo of surface mine blasting at an unidentified mine.

It’s been widely reported that Massey Energy late last month started blasting at its Bee Tree Mine on Coal River Mountain, the site where environmental groups have proposed a wind energy facility as an alternative to mountaintop removal.

But last week, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection quietly cited Massey subsidiary Marfork Coal Co. for using too large a load of explosives in its blasting operations at Bee Tree.

Here’s what the notice of violation, issued Nov. 4 by WVDEP inspector Sandra Duncan, said:

Blaster scaled to a gas well instead of the two-inch gas line that was closer to the blast. Failure to use the closest structure caused the allowed maximum weight of explosives to be detonated in any eight millisecond period to be exceeded.

What does that mean?

Blasters use  formulas — called “scaled distance” formulas — to calculate how much explosives they can use.  Using these formulas, the weight of explosives is “scaled” based on the distance from the blast site to the nearest structure (buildings, gas lines, water lines and others).

Tom Clarke, director of the WVDEP Division of Mining and Reclamation, told me this morning that his inspectors discovered Massey had used a gas well at the mine site as its “nearest structure” for purposes of its blasting formula. Clarke said WVDEP inspectors found, though, that an underground gas pipeline was actually closer to the blast site and should have been used. Clarke said:

The blasts were in compliance if the well was used, but not if the gas line was used.

Clarke was not able to provide more detailed information on how the distances involved varied between the gas well and the gas line. And, he wasn’t sure exactly how many blasts exceeded their allowable weight, based on the incorrect “nearest structure” being used in the scaled distance formula.

WVDEP inspectors discovered the problem when reviewing the blasting logs Massey and other mine operators are required to maintain to document their use of explosives to blast apart hilltops and uncover coal reserves for mining.

The WVDEP violation notice listed the following as the required “remedial measures”:

Scale to the closest structure and use GPS to obtain accurate distance on subsequent blasts.

But it also said:

Blast logs are to be corrected by Blaster-in-Charge using proper procedures, i.e., striking thru incorrect information, writing correct information to side and initialing correction.

I’m not sure what that means, and Clarke wasn’t immediate able to tell me. (Before anybody comments on that … keep in mind that today’s a government holiday. I appreciate Tom calling me back several times to try to answer the questions I had about this).

Updated, 3:15 p.m.:

Tom Clarke from WVDEP kindly explained to me, after consulting with his staff, that the second remedial measure I listed referred to requiring Massey to amend its blasting log to reflect both the incorrect blasts and what those blasts should have been like if the correct formula had been used.

Clarke did downplay the incident, though:

Given the nature of what happened, we don’t believe any members of the public or employees of Massey were in any danger, but they were still in violation.

I’ve sought comment today from Massey Energy, but have not heard anything back yet from them.

Massey has had at least one serious problem previously concerning the location of underground gas lines on its surface mining sites.

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On Feb. 1, 2006, at Massey subsidiary Elk Run Coal Co.’s Black Castle Mine in Boone County, bulldozer operator Paul Moss was killed when his dozer hit a gas line and caught fire (see photo above). U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials concluded:

The accident occurred because mine management directed the bulldozer to work in close proximity to a known but unlocated active gas line. Although aware of the gas line and potential hazard, mine management did not accurately locate and mark the gas line before directing the bulldozer to operate in the area. This exposed the bulldozer operator to a hazardous condition. Additionally, failure to conduct required on-shift examinations contributed to the accident in that the hazardous condition was not properly identified and corrected.

MSHA fined Elk Run Coal $60,000, the maximum allowed at the time by federal law. The company is appealing.

Interestingly, Clarke told me that Massey officials wrongly thought they had obtained a waiver to not use the gas line as their “nearest structure.” Under state blasting regulations, such waivers may be granted by WVDEP, but only if they are sought before blasting.

That kind of reminded me of when the Manchin administration mistakenly said more than a year ago that Massey had all the required permits for the Bee Tree operation, but within a few hours, WVDEP was correcting the governor’s office and pointing out that all the permits weren’t approved yet.

UPDATED, 2:50 P.M.

I received this statement from Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater via e-mail:

The NOV was the result of a 7 millisecond delay, instead of an 8 millisecond delay, between two holes that were part of the overall shot. Both air and vibration readings were well below allowed limits. The issue has been addressed and proper procedures put in place to eliminate this from occurring in the future.