MSHA, Massey employees sought airflow help at UBB
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Less than three weeks before the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up, a federal mine safety expert secretly tried to convince a high-ranking Massey Energy executive to send in the company's ventilation specialist to fix persistent and serious airflow problems at the Raleigh County mine.
The effort is documented in previously confidential email messages between Massey and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. The email messages were made available to state and federal investigators and obtained by the Gazette.
On March 16, 2010, MSHA ventilation inspector Joseph Mackowiak sent an electronic message to Massey vice president Chris Adkins.
"Low air on the headgate section again, despite last week's shut down," Mackowiak wrote. "I called Bill Ross and he is on another project right now.
"I think they could use some help," the email said. "Good luck."
Mackowiak is the ventilation supervisor in MSHA's District 4 office in Mount Hope, covering all of Southern West Virginia. Ross used to hold that job, and was Mackowiak's boss, before he retired from the government and took a job as a ventilation specialist for Massey.
Other email messages show Mackowiak and Ross discussing Mackowiak's suggestion to Adkins.
About an hour after Mackowiak emailed Ross, Ross sent a message to Mackowiak saying, "What's the verdict?"
Mackowiak responded, "I haven't received a reply yet."
Ross asked, "What did you say to him? I want to help out at the mine if they will listen?"
"I emailed him and told him that the headgate was out of air again despite last week's shut down," Mackowiak responded. "I called u and u were on another project, and they seemed like they needed some help."
Mackowiak told state and federal investigators he never got a response from Adkins. The ventilation supervisor testified three times during the civil investigation, but officials have not yet made public transcripts of his interviews.
Adkins and Ross are among 18 Massey management personnel who asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer questions from government investigators.
Neither Massey nor MSHA immediately responded to requests for comment for this story.
When Massey Energy is bought out by Alpha Natural Resources, Adkins is slated to work with an existing Alpha executive to "spearhead the implementation" of Alpha's main safety program, called "Running Right."
The email exchanges occurred as MSHA inspectors and ventilation experts were becoming increasingly frustrated with repeated airflow violations by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co., which operated the Upper Big Branch Mine.
The week before the emails were written, an MSHA inspector had cited Performance Coal when he found airflow going in the wrong direction in the longwall section of the mine.
And the week before that, an MSHA inspector cited Performance when he found that airflow in the mine's "headgate" continuous miner section was half of what was required under the company's MSHA-approved ventilation plan.
In handwritten notes from March 2, 2010, the MSHA inspector said workers in the area had complained of the problem and that the lack of adequate airflow should have been obvious to mine management.
"I believe the foremen in this section have showed high negligence by not reporting/correcting ventilation problems that were obvious to me and the men on [the] section," the inspector wrote. Massey is challenging a $38,503 fine issued by MSHA for that alleged violation.
Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5, 2010, explosion, making Upper Big Branch the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years. Civil and criminal investigations of the explosion continue, with an independent report by longtime mine safety chief Davitt McAteer expected to be released as early as next week.
Investigators believe the explosion involved a methane ignition that was then made far worse by a buildup underground of highly explosive coal dust. So far, though, investigators have not publicly detailed their theory for what specific ventilation problems could have allowed the methane accumulate to within the explosive range of 5 to 15 percent.
"In the nine months that this [longwall mining] panel was being worked, MSHA cited Massey 23 times for failing to follow its ventilation plan," MSHA deputy assistant secretary Greg Wagner wrote in a July 2010 memo. "Massey clearly had a problem properly directing the air in its mine, and had a problem following the approved ventilation plan."
Testimony made public by MSHA earlier this week provides a few additional details about ventilation problems at Upper Big Branch, including information about a company audit that warned certain airlock doors in the mine posed a potential safety hazard.
Mark Bolen, a Massey rescue team member and safety auditor, said a set of doors near the mine's longwall section didn't meet company policy requiring such doors to open and close automatically.
"Those doors were manual doors, and we had discussed getting that corrected," Bolen told investigators. "The explanation I got [was] that the doors had been ordered. The appropriate doors had been ordered."
Bolen said that manual doors could easily be left open by workers, allowing airflow to be diverted and disrupting the carefully planned ventilation of an underground mine. The doors in question were in a "critical" location, he said, and if they were left open it could short-circuit key airflow into working sections of the mine.
In his memo, Wagner said that Massey used airlock doors more frequently at Upper Big Branch than other operators do at their mines, and noted the doors were "easier and cheaper to construct" than other ventilation controls called overcasts.
Gary Steven Snyder, a supervisor with the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, testified during the investigation that he once asked Massey official Jamie Ferguson why Upper Big Branch used so many airlock doors.
"He just hung his head," Snyder told investigators. "I said, you know, the best approach would have been to put overcasts in and you wouldn't have had to open and close doors and rely on individuals to open and hopefully close the doors back."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.