A sabotaged methane sensor may be one of the causes of the deadly West Virginia coal mine explosion, a union report said.
The United Mine Workers (UMW), designated as the miners’ representative in the investigation of the disaster at the non-union Upper Big Branch mine, was harshly critical of the owner, Massey Energy, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training. The UMW titled their report “Industrial Homicide.”
The explosion on April 5, 2010, killed 29 miners in the worst mining disaster in the United States in a quarter-century. Massey, which blamed the explosion on a sudden rush of explosive methane gas from a crack in the floor, merged into Alpha Natural Resources last year.
“The UMWA wishes to be very clear: Massey Energy had overall responsibility to maintain the UBB mine in a safe operating condition at all times,” the report said. “Massey had the responsibility to comply with all mandatory health and safety standards. However, it was MSHA’s job to oversee compliance and to be the ‘watch dog.'”
Much of the report repeats findings of a federal report on the explosion — that Massey kept two sets of safety records and failed to keep coal dust under control in the mine. But union investigators also say a methane sensor near the point of explosion would have prevented the blast if a ventilation curtain had not been set up that kept it from functioning properly.
“The curtain o-rings and tie wires indicate it was hung from the shield toward the face to a point just in by the tailgate methane sensor,” the report said.”This would direct all the airflow toward the sensor, diluting the methane at that point and eliminating its ability to detect the actual amount of methane on the face.”
Chris Blanchard, the president of the mine, and Jason Whitehead, the director of operations, spent 3 hours underground immediately after the explosion, a trip they described as looking for survivors or bodies, the report said. Investigators later found what appeared to be a new methane sensor in the area where the explosion began.