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Ten days after the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reported its working theory about the deadly Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion, mine owner Massey Energy presented its latest findings Friday to reporters and the families of the 29 miners killed.
"Our conclusion to date is different," said Massey Vice President and General Counsel Shane Harvey.
MSHA's preliminary findings cited a number of alleged safety lapses as contributors to the blast, including the failure to control coal dust, the failure to properly maintain and fix water-based safety systems and the failure to fix and properly maintain the cutting bits on the longwall mining machine that is believed to be the source of the explosion.
MSHA believes a small methane gas ignition suddenly erupted into a concussive fireball so powerful it killed miners more than two miles away underground.
Little has changed in Massey's explanation, which shifts blame from any possible mechanical and safety system failures and wrongdoing by the company.
Here's what Massey is saying, point-by-point:
1. An infusion of natural gas (which contains methane) and not coal bed methane itself fueled the explosion, overwhelming the ventilation system that is supposed to sweep away explosive gases and all other safety systems.
2. Coal dust did not feed, accentuate and spread the explosion, as MSHA claims, because the material used to neutralize the explosive power of coal dust is still present in the mine. "Rock dust," as it's called, is covered by soot from the explosion.
3. Worn, broken and missing bits and sprayers on the longwall mining machine's cutting tool, known as a shearer, did not cause excessive sparking or fail to temper sparks, coal dust and a small ignition. Massey maintains that any damage was caused by the explosion itself. But the company also says the machine would have still sprayed enough water, even in a damaged state, to control sparks, coal dust and a small ignition.
Massey provided new slides and video to illustrate its working theories about the Upper Big Branch explosion.
One principal investigator of the explosion rejects Massey's conclusions outright.
"Our investigation and our view of the evidence suggests that an explosion caused by an inundation of natural gas or methane is not supported by the evidence," says Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA official conducting an independent Upper Big Branch probe for West Virginia's governor.
McAteer says the heaviest damage in the mine is in areas far from the suspected ignition point. An explosion fueled by a gas inundation would cause more damage near the source of the blast, he says.
Another investigator questions a Massey claim that natural gas was detected emanating from a crack in the mine floor after the explosion.
"We have taken gas measurements and no-one has detected any gas from that crack," says Dennis O'Dell, the mine safety director of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents coal miners in the Upper Big Branch investigation.
"This is yet another page in Massey's PR playbook to deflect blame from itself," says Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mineworkers of America. "They continue to use so-called 'facts' to attempt to obfuscate the underlying conditions at this mine that caused this disaster – conditions for which the company was responsible."
After the Massey briefing for families of the victims, Judy Jones Petersen said, "I feel incredibly confused." Petersen's brother Dean was killed in the disaster.
"Massey's theories behind the explosion and MSHA's theories behind the explosion are 180 degrees opposite," Petersen added. "I don't even know scientifically how they can be so far in opposition."
Petersen also said she was angered by one aspect of the dueling narratives presented by Massey and MSHA. Last week, MSHA showed a photograph of a worn bit on the longwall machine's shearer.
"We left that (MSHA) meeting believing this was the condition the bits were in," Petersen recalls. "We were questioning the integrity of the crew that was working that day."
But Massey showed a more complete photograph of the shearer and nearly all the bits are not worn down to steel nubbins.
"I feel that MSHA mislead us," Petersen adds. "That was a half truth that was told to us and when you tell me a half truth you bring into question the veracity of everything else you said."
MSHA has yet to respond to NPR's request for comment on Petersen's concern.
But the agency said it is sticking by its working theory of the blast, including its conclusions that excessive coal dust existed throughout the mine and that worn bits and malfunctioning water safety systems contributed to the explosion.
Harvey added that Massey's assessment may change and that a final report from the company won't come until after investigators from MSHA and the state of West Virginia release their findings. That's still two to three months away.
A separate federal criminal investigation is also underway, as well as an internal Department of Labor probe of any possible wrongdoing or regulatory lapses by MSHA inspectors and managers.
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