Massey Says West Virginia Mine Was Clear of Gases Before Explosion

April 28, 2010

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.

Massey Energy Co. board director Stanley Suboleski said the samples were taken by foremen as part of a shift change exam of the mine, just “tens of minutes” before the blast. The examination also showed that air flow in the Upper Big Branch mine was fine.

“All the indicators are that at the start of the shift, everything was OK,” said Suboleski, a mining engineer.

Two other miners were injured in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, which was the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

Massey held a news conference Monday to address several issues related to the explosion. The news conference was held a day after President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin led a memorial for the fallen miners.

Massey Board Director Bobby Inman called allegations that the company put profits over safety a “big lie.” He blamed such sentiment on plaintiffs lawyers and leaders of the United Mine Workers union. The union said Monday that it would help investigate the blast.

Inman also repeated the board’s recent expression of confidence in Massey Chairman and Chief Executive Don Blankenship, who has come under fire in the wake of the disaster.

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 country’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.

Associated Press staff writers Tim Huber and John Raby in Charleston contributed to this report.

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