Coal Tattoo

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Mine Explosion Massey Management

Massey Energy Co. Chairman and CEO, Don Blankenship, second from right, attends a press conference with board directors, from left, Robert Foglesong, Bobby Inman, and Stanley Suboleski, Monday, April 26, 2010 at in Charleston, W.Va. Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 workers, the mine’s owner said Monday. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and three of the company’s board members had a press conference this morning in Charleston. Just a day after the memorial ceremony for the Upper Big Branch miners, Massey is launching a full-court press defense of itself.

The bulk of their comments were included in a letter “To Whom it May Concern” that was distributed by Massey’s PR firm to reporters and others just before the press conference, held over at the Charleston Civic Center.

Among the major points:

A summary of the “benefits” Massey is offering to families, without the families having to settle any legal claims against the company. Those benefits include life insurance equal to five times the miners’ annual pay, 20 years of health benefits for surviving spouses, health benefits for surviving children until at least age 19, and a four-year scholarship to any West Virginia college, university or vocational school. Massey also said it will pay surviving spouses the monthly difference between the miners’ base pay and the workers’ compensation benefits the spouse would normally receive.

A defense of the Upper Big Branch Mine’s safety record, which argues that the mine had “about an average number of violations in 2009-2010” though concedes it had “a very large number” of more serious enforcement orders. Massey said it brought in a team to try to fix problems, and that the number of serious enforcement actions dropped by 80 percent between Nov. 1, 2009, and April 1, 2010. “Just days before the explosion, federal mine inspectors commented favorably on conditions in the mine,” the company said.

Mine Explosion-Massey Management

Massey Energy Co. Chairman and CEO, Don Blankenship, second from right, attends a press conference with board directors, from left, Robert Foglesong, Bobby Inman, and Stanley Suboleski, Monday, April 26, 2010 at in Charleston, W.Va. Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 workers, the mine’s owner said Monday. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Restating Massey’s view that, “Serious accidents that lead to loss of life in any industry often are typically not the result of one, easily identifiable cause … Instead, they usually result from a complex interplay of contributing forces. Separating those strands of forces can take time and intense, expert study. That is why it is so important that for this accident, as for others, there be no rush to judgment about its cause.”

(During the question-and-answer session, I pressed Massey board member Bobby R. Inman about how he reconciled his view that the idea that Massey puts production ahead of safety is a “big lie” with the guilty plea by Aracoma Coal Co. to criminal mine safety violations that led to the deaths of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield in January 2006. Inman responded that the guilty plea and the violations that led to those deaths “had nothing to do with profit … profit had nothing to do with the Aracoma fire.” Later, Inman also took issue with comments by MSHA and other mine safety experts that all coal-mine explosions are preventable, saying, “All accidents are preventable if you shut down production. Mining is — there is no way around it — is a dangerous business.”)

— Local radio personality Mike Agnello gave Massey a chance to blame the explosion — as Fox News has tried to do — on “seismic activity”  far from the mine site in the days prior to the explosion … and even Massey didn’t try to make this leap. Company officials said they might be able to “make a convoluted case” for that, but would “tend to dismiss” the theory.

— Most interestingly, Massey’s open letter had this to say about MSHA:

It is important to note that the longwall at UBB was not operating with the same ventilation system that it began with in September 2009. MSHA required us to change that system and we complied. Recognizing that professionals can reasonably disagree on the best method of ventilation at a mine, we have discovered the following: 1. that MSHA required several changes since that date that made the ventilation in this area more complex; 2. that the volume of fresh air to the face was significantly reduced during this period; and 3. that our engineers resisted making the changes, in one instance to the point of shutting down production for two days, before agreeing to MSHA’s ventilation plan changes.

Massey officials were quick to add that they aren’t suggesting MSHA is at fault, or that any of these ventilation changes caused the explosion … and during the open press conference, company officials declined to provide any more specifics about the ventilation changes.

Later, Massey board member Stan Suboleski told me there were three types of ventilation changes pushed by MSHA:

— The longwall started out using “belt air” — where a conveyor belt tunnel is used to bring fresh air into the working section — but MSHA retracted its approval for that.

— MSHA put restrictions on how far air from outside could travel when it left the longwall tailgate.

— Agency officials told Massey they could not have air from continuous mining sections returning in one of the longwall gates unless the company traveled the area in its entirety to check for problems.

Now, it’s hard to understand much of that without discussing it while looking at a mine map (which we didn’ t have when I spoke with Suboleski), and I’ve boiled down what he said quite a bit to try to make it a little bit clear.

In his initial remarks at the press conference, Suboleski said that pre-shift examinations the day of the explosion showed no explosive levels of methane and no other hazards to miner health or safety:

There was no evidence of a dangerous condition.

I’m mystified at what occurred at the mine on April 5. Something very unexpected happened at Upper Big Branch.