Coal Tattoo

As the Obama administration’s departments of Labor and Justice collaborate to hide from the public details of what might have caused the Upper Big  Branch Mine Disaster,  some bits and pieces continue to tumble out.

My buddy Howard Berkes over at NPR had a piece late Friday afternoon with a few more tidbits about an issue we’ve covered several times here on Coal Tattoo and in the Gazette:

Legally required water systems at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia were not functioning properly before the April 5 explosion that killed 29 mineworkers, according to multiple sources familiar with the disaster investigation.

… The malfunctioning systems include:

— The fire suppression system on the shearer. Sources say it didn’t work. Massey Energy admits that one of two valves on the system was missing, and a hose was “manually plugged.”

— A water-spraying arm or boom at the shearer was disconnected, according to sources. Massey says it was broken off.

— Sprayers on the shearer itself were missing or clogged. Some looked like they had had nails driven into them. Tests conducted on the shearer sprayer system before Christmas indicate little or no water sprayed the shearer as it cut into six inches of sandstone in the coal seam, and likely kicked off sparks and churned up coal dust.

We reported on the water spray issue back in November and again earlier this month.  As Berkes points out in his piece:

The sprayers help keep coal dust down so it won’t clog the lungs of miners or float in the air. When coal dust is floating, it is highly explosive. The sprayers also help cool and extinguish sparks when the shearer cuts into hard rock. The shearer also contains a water-based fire suppression system.

One of the more interesting things here is that, as we pointed out in a Saturday Gazette story, Massey Energy officials are taking the position that these water spray systems do not really do anything to help prevent explosions:

Harvey said that the company’s experts believe that the water sprays on the shearer were intended to control the level of coal dust miners inhale, and were not designed to help control sparks, fires or explosions.

“Whether they have some small side benefit, I’ve not found anyone who would say that,” Harvey said.

This is certainly a new argument to me, and it’s one that government investigators and mine safety experts don’t agree with … take for instance this guidance from NIOSH:

Preventing methane ignitions at longwall faces requires four actions. The first is to provide better ventilation around the shearer to eliminate the ventilation eddy zones at the drums where methane builds up. These eddy zones are eliminated by mounting additional water sprays on the shearer to direct air into them. The second action to prevent methane ignitions is to install a water spray behind each cutter bit and regularly replace worn bits. Water sprays behind each cutter bit act to quench the hot metal streak that follows a worn bit when it strikes rock. The third is to ensure that no ventilation eddy zones are inadvertently created by poor placement of water sprays. The fourth is to ensure that the methane monitor on the shearer is in the best location to detect methane accumulations.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill continues churning over at The Wall Street Journal, which reported Friday:

Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and Arch Coal Inc. have emerged as the most serious competitors to acquire Massey Energy Co., people familiar with the matter said.

Massey’s board will likely make a decision at the end of this month whether to sell the company or maintain the status quo, these people said. There is momentum toward a sale, especially because some of Massey’s biggest investors, such as BlackRock, will likely push for one, some of these people said.

Stay tuned …