Coal Tattoo

MSHA: Upper Big Branch Disaster ‘preventable’

Federal investigators believe that they have pinpointed the source and spot of the ignition that caused the terrible April 5 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials told families of the 29 miners who were killed that government experts believe the blast began on the “tailgate” side of the Raleigh County mine’s longwall section.

MSHA investigators have concluded that a small amount of methane seeped into that area, and was ignited by sparks from the longwall machine’s cutting tool, or shearer. Importantly, MSHA believes that the shearer was in a horrible state of disrepair — with worn out bits and missing or malfunctioning water sprays intended to keep down dust and sparks.

“The shearer was totally out of compliance,” MSHA chief Joe Main told the families in a four-hour, closed-door briefing Tuesday night, according to several people who attended the meeting.

MSHA investigators also believe that they have pieced together very strong evidence that inadequate “rock-dusting” allowed explosive coal dust to build up in the Upper Big Branch Mine, and that what could have been a small methane ignition turned into a major explosion and disaster as the ignition followed a trail of fuel — the cost dust — through the mine’s underground tunnels.

The families were shown maps and charts indicating areas of the mine where workers had said more rock-dusting was needed prior to the explosion, and where MSHA tests performed after the blast showed inadequate rock-dusting had been done. They also viewed a video of the tests that were performed on the water spray systems at Upper Big Branch’s longwall section after the explosion.

Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s administrator for coal, told the families:

This was preventable.

Stricklin told families that if any number of preventative measures — working water sprays or required levels of rock dust, for example — the small methane ignition could have been extinguished in 10 to 15 seconds.

UPDATED: Howard Berkes from NPR also has a report on last night’s meeting with the families.