MSHA Samples Show Excessive Coal Dust at Time of Upper Big Branch Disaster

Posted on behalf of Stewart Bell, PLLC on Sep 23, 2010 in Coal Mining Accidents

The Mining Safety and Health Administration investigation into West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine explosion has confirmed evidence of excessive coal dust near the blast site at the time of the accident. Investigators had said earlier that a combination of coal dust and methane gas were likely the cause of the blast that killed 29 miners. These findings confirm the theory.

Coal dust was present in more than 1,400 samples taken from the mine. Most of the samples came from areas affected by the explosion -- a fact that has led to another dispute between MSHA and the mine's owner. MSHA admits that the samples prove only that coal dust played a role, not the extent of the dust's contribution to the accident. Mine owner Massey Energy Co. said that MSHA has jumped the gun in releasing its results and in drawing conclusions from the samples. The energy company pointed out that MSHA had made similar claims in the past that were ultimately rejected by a federal court.

But MSHA seems to be sticking to its statement. Investigators said their analysis took into consideration the degradation of the coal dust following the explosion. Samples taken after an explosion will necessarily show less dust, because the explosion itself has consumed a portion of the combustible material.

Their findings have been bolstered by inspection logs completed by mine workers prior to the April 5 accident. The handwritten log entries from about half an hour before the explosion included observations that eight of the conveyor belts had excessive coal dust. Past logs indicated a pattern of excessive dust along the conveyor belts.

Company officials respond that the mine had been properly maintained at the time of the blast. But MSHA counters that almost 80 percent of the samples taken to date show that efforts to mitigate had fallen short of federal requirements.

Sections of the mine have yet to be sampled. One of the two sections that had been flooded is now clear of water and will be open to investigators soon. Pumping should start in the near future on the second section.

Investigators will not only take samples from the two remaining sections. They will also look for a methane detector and a remote control for the longwall mining machine. Mapping the mine and the ventilation system are also on investigators' agendas.

By law, coal mines must coat coal dust with inert material like pulverized stone. The inert material reduces the risk presented by an excess of the explosive matter.

Resource: "MSHA Says Explosive Coal Dust Found at W.Va. Mine" 9/20/10

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