This photo released by Massey Energy shows what the company says was a large crack in the floor that could have released methane into the mine. The photo also shows part of the longwall mining machine.
By Ken Ward, Jr. July 22, 2010
Well, Massey Energy has shifted into what I’ll call “Act of God” mode in full force today, blaming the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster on a gigantic outburst of methane into the mine that company officials say there was little — if anything — they could do to control.
First, the company issued this press release, this morning to describe what it called an “Unexpected release of methane gas into the UBB mine” that “was intense and overwhelming to the normal safety systems.”
Then, Massey officials held a press conference phone call to discuss what it said was new methane data from the Upper Big Branch Mine. They said huge amounts of methane may have flooded into the Raleigh County mine from a crack in the floor, overwhelming the mine’s safety systems and eventually igniting the April 5 explosion that killed 29 workers.
(So readers understand — I only heard about the press conference from another reporter, and when I tried to call in, the operator told me I wasn’t on Massey’s “approved list” for the call. I was able to sign onto a Webcast, but that allowed me only to listen in, not ask any questions).
Sorry, but I missed the very first part of the call when I was signing onto the Webcast after being kicked off Massey’s phone call.
To me, though, there were two key exchanges …
First, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked:
Do you think this data and this crack, this hoove in the floor, does it indicate that a natural event beyond the control of the company could have caused this event?
Massey General Counsel Shane Harvey said:
It’s a possibility at this stage.
Then, local TV personality Kennie Bass asked:
Was there an influx of methane gas that was so rapid and so vast that it was a distinct possibility that it caused the explosion and there was no man-made defense that could take care of it?
Again, Shane Harvey responded:
What you said is a distinct possibility but we’re not certain yet.
Now, remember that there were two previous methane outbursts from the Upper Big Branch Mine floor, in 2003 and 2004 … one of them was so bad that it was reported by the company as a gas “innundation” at the the mine. MSHA documents first reported by the Gazette and Coal Tattoo outlined a number of steps that Massey was going to take to deal with this problem and prevent a recurrence … What we don’t know is what — if any — of these steps were actually taken, and what MSHA did about the situation.
I was going to ask Massey about that, but maybe that wasn’t one of their “approved” questions for today’s conference call. Tim Huber at The Associated Press tried to ask about this, though … listen in at the end of the call to hear Massey’s expert, Christopher Schemel, say he wasn’t really familiar with that issue.