MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Massey Energy Co. on Friday rejected nearly every part of the federal government's theory on what caused the deadly explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia last spring, killing 29 men.
The Richmond, Va.-based coal company doesn't believe that worn shearer bits, broken water sprayers or an excessive buildup of coal dust contributed to the blast, Vice President and General Counsel Shane Harvey said.
Instead, Massey continues to argue there was a sudden inundation of natural gases from a crack in the floor that overwhelmed what it insists were good air flow and other controls that should have contained the blast.
Traces of gas continue to flow from that crack, Harvey said.
MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said investigators found no evidence of a large methane explosion. It appears it took only "a low volume methane and/or methane from natural gas" to fuel the ignition, she said.
MSHA presented preliminary findings from its continuing investigation last week, saying Massey records and evidence from inside the mine point to poor maintenance as a key cause of the blast.
Harvey acknowledged the shearing machine that cuts the coal may somehow have ignited the gas but said the company's own investigators haven't determined how. Massey won't issue its own report on the explosion until after state and federal investigators release theirs, he said.
Also on Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources Inc. is nearing a deal to buy Massey for about $7 billion in cash and stock. The Journal cited people familiar with the matter which it did not identify. Recent reports have suggested that Massey is a possible takeover target for rivals such as Alpha Natural and global steel conglomerate ArcelorMittal SA.
The April 2010 blast was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years and is the subject of both criminal and civil investigations, as well as lawsuits by some of the victims' families.
Massey briefed reporters in a Charleston hotel while some relatives of the fallen miners and their lawyers got a more detailed report in a separate room, its door guarded by two men. Harvey said not all the families were represented, but there were 28 people, including lawyers. On a table nearby were black wrist bands with the words "Never forget."
"They're really just contradicting each other," said a frustrated Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died in the explosion.
Massey "put on a good show and had a lot of information to discuss," he said, "... but I would have to lean toward MSHA. I think it's more an accumulation of dust."
Mullins, 52, of Pax, worked in the mine and knew most of the victims. He quit Upper Big Branch three years ago and went to another mine, but he hasn't gone underground since the day his brother died and isn't sure he ever will.
"It's been 10 months, and we don't know no more now than the first day it happened, really," he said. "All we know is we've got loved ones lost, and it's just very frustrating."
MSHA's preliminary findings suggest worn and broken equipment contributed to the initial fire and made it impossible to put out, while poor housekeeping allowed excessive amounts of explosive coal dust to accumulate.
Federal investigators believe the explosion started when teeth on the shearer created a spark that ignited as little as 13 cubic feet of methane. They believe coal dust mixed with the methane to create a blast so powerful it turned 90-degree corners, rounded a 1,000-foot-wide block of coal and built enough force to kill men more than a mile away.
Harvey disputed MSHA's findings point by point, challenging the scientific validity of samples that showed the mine was not sufficiently coated with white rock dust designed to prevent the coal dust from exploding.
Massey, Harvey said, had reached "a different conclusion from the evidence."
MSHA took most of its samples from the area most affected by the blast, Harvey said, so they are tainted and unreliable. Reports on rock dusting from March 15, just 20 mining days before the blast, showed most of the mine was compliant, he said.
"Twenty days of mining would not have changed the rock dust that much. Only explosion debris could have changed it that much," Harvey said. "... It is just not scientific to take data after an explosion and find it to be meaningful in any way."
Louviere said MSHA believes the samples were indicative of conditions at the time of the blast and noted that other areas in the mine were also noncompliant.
A log book obtained by The Associated Press last fall showed that veteran miner Michael Elswick phoned the surface just 32 minutes before the blast, saying three conveyor belts needed to be rock-dusted.
Elswick was a "good foreman" who wanted to apply some "TLC" to the mine, Harvey said after the briefing,
"He wanted it refreshed before it became a problem," Harvey said.
Massey also disputed the condition of its water sprayers, noting that while its safety plan required only 109 sprayers, it had 153 in place. Even with eight out of service, "we still had more sprayers than the plan required."
Harvey also disputed the notion that the condition of the shearer bits contributed to the blast. Of 44 visible bits, he said, only two had significant wear. The rest had "shiny carbide tips."
Louviere said investigators are still reviewing the condition of the bits.
"That being said, it takes only one bit without proper spray to allow an ignition to occur," she said, adding that the water sprays behind the bits weren't working because some had been removed and the required pressure on each nozzle couldn't be maintained.
Associated Press writer Brian Farkas contributed from Charleston.