Coal Tattoo

News from McAteer’s Upper Big Branch update

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

I’m just back from the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster briefing held late this morning by Davitt McAteer, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin’s special investigator.

Here’s a quick summary of the major points the media heard in this, the first real update from any government investigator on the probe of that terrible April 5 explosion that killed 29 Massey Energy miners:

— Investigators from McAteer’s team, MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training have so far interviewed 126 witnesses and have at least 100 other interviews planned.

— Delays in ensuring conditions underground were safe delayed the start of the on-site part of the probe until June 24, and investigators continue to be hampered by poor conditions, including large buildups of water in some of the key areas that need to be examined.

— Investigators are just beginning to map the underground damage, take samples to determine the exact size and nature of the blast, but already it’s clear that this was huge explosion, with damage already found strewn across nearly 2 1/2 miles of mine tunnels.

— Teams of investigators finally made their first examination of the longwall section of the mine yesterday, but still have not made reviews of the “22 Headgate” and “22 Tailgate” sections, the other two likely areas for the explosion to have started. Mine conditions, mostly water buildup, is preventing that work.

— Already, McAteer believes that what he’s seen at Upper Big Branch confirms some of his findings after the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire — that the coal industry needs to do as much to improve mine safety technology as it has to improve mine production technology.  He cited, for example, the continued use of old-time metal tags to identify miners underground and the fact that pre-shift safety reports are still handwritten in paper, rather than kept on computers.

— Despite repeated questioning on this point, McAteer declined to say what his investigation has learned so far about whether the Upper Big Branch Mine was properly pre-shifted prior to the shift when the explosion occurred. McAteer said some of the appropriate personnel to answer such questions have been interviewed, but not all have been questioned yet, so it’s too soon to know the answer for certain.

— McAteer said that his team is continuing to examine the issue of the “methane outbusts” that occurred in 2003 and 2004 at Upper Big Branch, but hasn’t reached any conclusions and has not yet been able to confirm a report from Massey Energy about a crack in the mine floor that could have been an indication of another outburst linked to the April 5 explosion.

Finally, McAteer emphasized that his team is doing a much different and broader investigation than what is being conducted by MSHA and the state regulators. Importantly, for example, McAteer will look at whether current regulations are strong enough and whether those regulations were properly enforced — state and federal regulators by and large will just be looking to find whether there were violations of the law that led to the disaster. As McAteer said:

Our whole philosophy is separate. Our whole purpose is separate.

McAteer said, given the complexity of the disaster, not to look for a report from his team until very late this year at the earliest.

I’ve posted rough audio of the entire media briefing here: