Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 workers, and what caused the disaster remains unknown, the mine’s owner said Monday.
Massey Energy Co. board director Stanley Suboleski said the samples were taken by foremen as part of a shift change exam at the Upper Big Branch mine, just “tens of minutes” before the blast. The examination also showed that air flow in the underground mine was fine.
“All the indicators are that at the start of the shift, everything was OK,” said Suboleski, a mining engineer.
Suboleski, two other Massey board directors and Chief Executive Don Blankenship held a news conference Monday to address several issues related to the explosion, the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.
The news conference was held a day after President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Joe Manchin led a memorial for the fallen miners. Two other miners were injured in the blast.
Blankenship told reporters that the president “honored the grieving families with his presence.” Offering continued condolences to those families, he also offered the company’s thanks to those who have assisted them since the blast.
“This has left us humbled and hurt, and searching for answers,” Blankenship said, adding that the company was dedicated to finding out what happened.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued the mine eight citations for violating preshift examination rules in 2010. Sobeleski told reporters that the overall number of violations received both this year and in 2009 was comparable to those at similar operations in the Appalachian coalfields. About 60 percent of Upper Big Branch’s violations were deemed “nonserious or nonsubstantial” by inspectors, Suboleski said.
But Suboleski also noted press reports that the mine had been hit with an “inordinate” amount of MSHA orders last year alleging the most serious kinds of violations. Massey assigned two full-time employees to address safety issues at the mine, and the number of those orders dropped by 80 percent in the seven months before the blast, he said.
Massey Board Director Bobby Inman said the company has been responsive to regulators by altering ventilation systems and making other changes. He called allegations that the company put profits over safety a “big lie.” He blamed such sentiment on plaintiffs lawyers and leaders of the AFL-CIO and United Mine Workers union. The UMW said Monday that it would help investigate the blast.
“The big truth is, 52 people have been killed on Massey property since 2000,” said Phil Smith, a UMW spokesman. “No other coal company has had even half that. The numbers are pretty clear.”
Inman also repeated the board’s recent expression of confidence in Blankenship, who has become lightning rod for criticism of the Richmond, Va.,-based company and its handling of the mine in the disaster’s wake.
Massey is facing a shareholder lawsuit stemming from the explosion, as well as wrongful death litigation and mounting scrutiny from regulators. Inman said the handful of institutional investors suing or calling for Blankenship to resign hold about 2 percent of the company’s stock, but have gotten “disproportionate public treatment.”
Investigators have detected high levels of two potentially explosive gases inside the mine, and it could be a month before investigators can get inside to determine what caused the blast. Federal regulators have identified highly explosive methane gas, coal dust or a mixture of the two as the likely cause of the blast, but the ignition source is unknown.
The explosion will be the subject of a Senate hearing on Tuesday, with the nation’s top mine safety official expected to testify.
Obama has ordered a broad review of coal mines with poor safety records and urged federal officials to strengthen laws.
Meanwhile at the news conference, the company also promised to provide the families of the miners killed with financial packages that will include five times their miner’s annual pay as life insurance benefits. Also included will be an additional payment to surviving spouses, health coverage both for them and dependent children, and four years’ worth of college or vocational education at any accredited school in West Virginia for those children.
Director Robert Fogelsong said accepting those benefits would not prevent the family from pursuing any legal claims. The widow of William Griffith has already filed a wrongful death lawsuit, while the mother of Adam Morgan has won a court order preserving relevant records and potential evidence from the disaster.
“I’ll have to talk to my lawyer about that,” Janice Quarles, widow of miner Gary Quarles, said of the financial package. The couple’s two children are 9 and 11.