When a small methane gas fire broke out at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia last April, workers were not able to put the blaze out because of worn and broken equipment. The end result: 29 miners dead in a massive coal dust explosion.
Massey records and evidence found deep inside the mine points to poor maintenance in what ended up being the deadliest U.S. coal mine explosion since 1970, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials said. While these finding are preliminary, the agency should finish its probe in two to three months.
Part of the findings include worn and broken equipment investigators believe contributed to the initial fire and made it impossible to put out, and poor housekeeping that allowed excessive amounts of explosive coal dust to coat much of the mine just before the April 5 blast.
“We’ve always taken a position that all explosions are preventable,” MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin said. “We still stand by our point.”
Investigators believe the explosion started when badly worn teeth on a 1000-foot-wide mining machine created a spark that ignited as little as 13 cubic feet of methane.
“It would be like a burst or a burst of flame,” Stricklin said.
Tests showed some of the machine’s 48 water sprayers for controlling dust and dousing sparks weren’t working at the time.
“There are a number of sprays that are missing. It almost looks as if a garden hose has water coming out of it and the other sprays do not have water coming out of them,” Stricklin said.
MSHA cited Massey on Nov. 10 for impeding its investigation after a mine employee refused to help supply water to test the sprayers.
Stricklin gave a timeline of the moments leading up to the blast: At least two miners near the fire apparently alerted co-workers who shut off the equipment. They made a harrowing dash away from the flames, hurdling the bottoms of hydraulic jacks holding up the mine’s roof. They ran perhaps as long as 90 seconds, covering about 400 to 500 feet.
“I really don’t know what they’re thinking at the time. I just know that they know they’re in a bad issue and they’re trying to get out of there as quickly as possible,” Stricklin said.
They didn’t make it. When the flames ignited coal dust, it unleashed a blast that killed everyone, including co-workers more than a mile away.
“It was a small amount of methane when it began,” Stricklin said.
The Associated Press reported in September that handwritten inspection logs filled out by Massey employees before the explosion showed eight of the mine’s conveyer belts had excessive amounts of coal dust before the explosion. MSHA cited those reports and dust samples taken after the blast showed excessive coal dust throughout the mine.
The worn teeth, which are more likely to kick off sparks, and broken sprayers were not in a report on an examination conducted about 20 minutes before the explosion, Stricklin said. Those facts should have been in the report, he said. That report noted there was enough air blowing to ventilate the area and no methane had been detected.
Investigators are still trying to determine whether the mine’s ventilation system was working properly at the time.
Massey records suggest production at the mine was lagging that day. Stricklin said records show the longwall broke down about 11 a.m. and wasn’t running until as late as 2:15 p.m.
Massey officials were not immediately available for comment.