Investigators to Visit Massey West Virginia Coal Mine Today

Investigators probing the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years plan to enter the Upper Big Branch mine for the first time today, owner Massey Energy Co. said.

Unsafe levels of toxic and explosive gases have kept federal and state investigators out of the sprawling southern West Virginia mine for nearly two months. No one has been underground since rescuers removed the last of 29 men killed in a massive explosion April 5.

The re-entry plan is a bit of good news for an investigation that’s been hampered by various problems. Massey, the United Mine Workers and others have criticized investigators for conducting interviews in private, and investigators have been stymied by Massey workers skipping appointments to talk.

“I am thrilled,” said West Virginia mine safety chief Ron Wooten. “It’s this agency’s opinion that we don’t need to waste another day.”

Evidence found underground is typically crucial to helping investigators pinpoint where an explosion started, giving them a place to look for the cause. Investigators will be mapping debris and looking for clues such as damaged roof bolts, which can point toward the origin of the blast.

Investigators suspect a combination of methane gas and coal dust caused the disaster, which is also the target of a federal criminal investigation.

The June 2 visits expected to focus on monitoring the atmosphere for gases. Investigators plan to go directly to the area where most of the victims were killed to gather samples, Wooten said. If that goes well, investigators would return to start their work June 4.

Wooten and Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, downplayed the problem with Massey workers skipping interviews.

Only four have skipped and they either forgot or had to work unexpectedly, Louviere said. One interview has been reset.

But if the problem persists, Wooten said he plans to start using the state’s subpoena power. “More than likely, it’s going to be used,” he said.

Massey said it has no idea what was going on with interviews.

“We are committed to cooperating with the investigation and would not discourage any person from attending an interview,” Jeff Gillenwater said.

Working solely on the surface hasn’t been entirely unproductive: MSHA has cited Massey subsidiary Performance Coal for at least 26 mostly minor violations since the explosion.

“None of the citations played any role in the April 5 accident,” Gillenwater said. “Notably, two of the citations were for stumbling hazards on the surface.”

Both were listed as more serious hazards, according to MSHA. The agency had no immediate comment.