Wednesday, April 14, 2010

WV Governor Orders Inspections For 200 Of State's Coal Mines

Gov. Joe Manchin today ordered the immediate inspection of all underground coal mines in West Virginia after an explosion last week killed 29 miners and injured two.

Manchin also asked for the state's more than 200 underground coal mines to cease production Friday to mourn the victims of the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

Manchin wants the miners to show up for work, but to help check on safety instead of producing coal.

Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine where the blast occurred, said a work stoppage was an appropriate way to honor the miners killed.

If the rest of the industry complies with Manchin's request, about 1 million tons of coal will not be mined, based on 2008 production data. At roughly $60 a ton, the stoppage could cost about $60 million in lost production.

It wasn't clear whether other companies would cease production along with Richmond, Va.-based Massey, one of the nation's top coal producers. A call to the West Virginia Coal Association was not immediately returned.

The governor's executive order tells state regulators to start checking mines that have repeatedly had combustion risks over the last year.

Highly explosive methane gas is believed to have played a role in the explosion. The levels of gas have also been a constant problem since the disaster, preventing crews from finding four missing miners for several days and this week keeping investigators from going underground to look for a cause.

Manchin wants the high-priority mines inspected within two weeks. His order said inspectors who find such risks or other health or safety violations can partially evacuate the mine or close it.

"We will focus initially on those that we regard as somewhat troublesome," said Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

Inspectors will start their blitz Friday, looking at electrical installations as well as methane and coal dust controls, including ventilation and the spraying of powdered rock to dilute explosive coal dust.

In Congress, Democratic Rep. George Miller of California said 48 mines, including Upper Big Branch, could have faced greater scrutiny if companies had not bombarded federal regulators with appeals, a common industry tactic. Only violations that are fully resolved can be considered in the count that would trigger tougher penalties.

Miller, the chairman of a congressional committee that oversees mine safety, said he wanted the public to have all relevant information about potentially dangerous mines in the hope of avoiding another disaster.

Meanwhile, it could be up to two weeks before investigators can venture inside Upper Big Branch to look for what caused the blast, which destroyed ventilation systems. The mine also needs to be checked for potential roof collapses.

Massey is expected to drill more boreholes into the mine to help improve ventilation, state mine safety spokeswoman Jama Jarrett said.

The delay isn't unusual. It was 24 days before investigators went underground at West Virginia's Sago mine, where 12 miners died after an explosion in January 2006.

On Tuesday, Gov. Joe Manchin asked a former top federal mine safety official to conduct an independent investigation of an explosion that killed 29 West Virginia miners, and also called for more scrutiny of mines with a history of safety violations.

Manchin told The Associated Press that J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, will probe the explosion and serve as his special adviser on issues involving the blast at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine.

McAteer's probe will be independent of separate state and federal investigations, and he'll focus on what actions should be taken to prevent such explosions in the future.

AP; Reuters; Wall Street Journal.

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