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Coal mine owner Massey Energy now has until Friday to avoid a federal seizure of its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, where 29 mineworkers died in an explosion in April.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration extended a noon Wednesday deadline, which was set after the agency cited Massey for impeding a joint state and federal investigation of the April disaster.
Investigators want to feed water to the cutting tool or shearer on the longwall mining machine. Multiple sources familiar with the investigation have told NPR that the longwall shearer is one possible ignition source for the explosion. The shearer has a number of water sprayers that help control explosive coal dust and sparks that are generated by the cutting of coal and rock. Investigators believe some of the sprayers are missing, clogged or broken. That could be a contributing factor in the blast.
The working condition of the sprayers can't be determined without feeding water to the devices and seeing whether they operate properly.
In its citation, MSHA claims acting Upper Big Branch mine supervisor Charlie Bearse refused to provide a water connection even after being told his refusal was impeding the Upper Big Branch investigation.
Bearse was defiant, according to the citation.
"Charlie Bearse has directly denied entry to MSHA's investigations teams ... which impedes the investigation," the citation says. "Mr. Bearse was told that this action impedes MSHA's investigation and that a violation ... would be issued to which he replied, 'Serve it to my name.' "
Bearse is also president of the Massey subsidiary that operates the company's Freedom Mine #1 in Pike County, Ky., which is the target of the Labor Department's first-ever attempt to get a federal court injunction forcing compliance with federal mine safety laws.
"This is the second time the operator has violated this section of the mine act for delaying MSHA's investigation process," the Upper Big Branch citation reads.
Under federal mine safety law, MSHA has the authority to seize control of the mine and order out all Massey employees, investigators and officials if the company persists in impeding a mine accident investigation.
Massey says it is still conducting its own investigation of the accident and worries that water from the sprays will destroy evidence.
"It is imperative that the area around the shearer be thoroughly evaluated for key evidence before inundating it with water," says Shane Harvey, Massey's vice president and general counsel.
Massey is required by federal law to conduct its own investigation of the accident.
The company is especially concerned about a crack in the mine floor that it believes is the source of the fuel for the explosion. That crack and what might have come out of it is central to an ongoing battle between Massey's hired experts and federal and state investigators.
"MSHA appears reluctant to allow any investigation that may reach a conclusion different than the one MSHA reached mere days after the explosion on April 5," Harvey adds.
MSHA officials have said they believe the explosion was triggered by methane gas and was then fed by coal dust. Until last week, Massey also blamed the blast on methane, claiming a massive infusion of the gas poured in from the crack in the mine floor near the shearer on the longwall mining machine. Massey's theory also suggests the explosion was unavoidable and cannot be blamed on poor safety practices.
Early Wednesday, Massey CEO Don Blankenship repeated the company's new theory about the explosion's cause in a speech at an industry gathering in New York. Blankenship said natural gas, and not methane, poured from the crack before the explosion.
"That's not something you would normally be guarding against," Blankenship said, because natural gas is not typically released during coal mining.
Harvey said later Wednesday that the company's own "analyses show that [gas] ... emissions [at the mine] contain constituents consistent with natural gas as opposed to coal bed methane. The company's experts currently believe that this natural gas inundated the mine on April 5 and provided the fuel for the explosion."
Methane is a primary component of natural gas, according to the Natural Gas Supply Association, but natural gas also includes other combustible gases.
MSHA has yet to comment on Massey's new theory about the cause of the blast.
Blankenship also told the industry gathering Wednesday that the Massey board of directors, which he chairs, is considering a takeover by another company. He called it "a bigger possibility as part of deliberating on shareholder value."
The Massey board is scheduled to meet next week to consider several reported buyout offers. But neither Blankenship nor Harvey would say more about a possible company sale. "We're always looking at [merger and acquisition] opportunities," Harvey says. "But we never discuss them until they're complete."