MSHA Insisted on Ventilation Change, Why?

The documentary points out that the government insisted on changes in the directional flow of the air at [the Upper Big Branch mine (UBB)] that resulted in a reduced volume of airflow. One reason suggested for the government requiring these changes was simply to demonstrate their authority over mine management.

But there is probably a somewhat less cynical explanation for the government actions. It has to do with the fact that some key Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) personnel had extensive experience with longwall mining in the Pittsburgh seam but only limited longwall experience in Central Appalachia, where UBB was mining.

Keep in mind that methane gas will not explode at percentages of the atmosphere less than 5%, nor greater than 15%. Therefore, Central Appalachian longwall operations above-drainage mines, which are characterized by low-methane emissions in both the face and the gob, seek to keep the mined-out areas of their mines at far less than 5% methane — in fact at 0% if it were possible. This is the safest thing to do, and, since the mines do not produce enough gas to capture and sell at a profit, no effort is made to recover the gas. The objective of mines like UBB is to simply sweep the gas out of the mine as quickly as possible with high volumes of airflow. UBB had a ventilation system designed and in place for 15 years that succeeded in doing just that.

Pittsburgh seam longwall mines, on the other hand, produce much higher levels of coal gas (methane) while mining than the above-drainage Central Appalchian mines. The Pittsburgh seam mines emit gas at the face and in the gob at levels that make capturing and later selling or using the gas a profitable venture and so they do not simply sweep the gas out of the mine. They instead drill de-gas holes in advance of the mining and pump as much gas as possible out of the longwall gob area after the coal is removed.

The government personnel may have simply failed to recognize the different approach to dealing with gas at UBB. Consequently, they required a ventilation approach similar to what they were familiar with in Northern Appalachia. In doing so, they failed to address the fundamentally critical importance of getting the gas out of the mine since there were no plans for de-gassing the longwall gob any other way.

The change in the ventilation system may not have contributed to the natural gas explosion at UBB as gas emissions from the coal seam were not a factor in the explosion anyway. But the forced use of a ventilation plan in a Central Appalachian mine that is best suited for a Pennsylvania mine is an issue that needs addressing if accidents are to be lessened.

The government needs to allow miners and engineers with hundreds of years of collective experience to have meaningful input into the ventilation system to be used at their properties. These mine engineers, who know their area best, deserve a chance to use the best ventilation plan that is achievable — not one someone in [Washington, D.C.] or a field office prefers.

If politicians truly want to prevent UBB from happening again, they need to rely on local experience and technical expertise rather than the wielded power of government or the experience that their agent may have gathered in another region of the country. Unfortunately, the choice they made at the UBB increased the likelihood of a mine explosion rather than decreased it.

Don Blankenship
Former CEO, Massey Energy

More Comments on UBB Documentary

Dear Steve:
I read your editorial in the April issue of Coal Age concerning Don Blankenship’s documentary. Two (hopefully helpful) comments regarding your article:

  • The video does not contend that the airflow was “60% of the proper airflow.” It notes that the MSHA changes reduced the flow to 60% of the previous airflow. The airflow at the time of the explosion was still nearly twice what the law required; however, when a massive inflow of gas occurs, then the higher the airflow the less the chance that an explosive mixture will be encountered. (In this case for the first minute or so, the mixture initially was so rich that it burned before it then became lean enough to explode.)
  • The MSHA video of the water sprays on the shearer was not “damning evidence.” Given the post-explosion conditions in the mine (without power at the face to run the section pump), MSHA simply could not produce sufficient water pressure at the face to achieve normal water flow; without the proper pressure, the normally brusque sprays simply wilted. (The shearer normally sprayed at the rate of 150 gallons per minute, and the shearer drum was equipped so that each bit had a spray nozzle aimed at it.) Furthermore, while MSHA contended that a missing spray nozzle would result in less water being sprayed, in fact a missing nozzle would result in more water being sprayed from the cutting drum (less back pressure).

You are correct that without a spark there would have been no ignition. It is also true that without a gas accumulation there would have been no ignition (and the gas readings on the monitors in the longwall face were zero just seconds prior to the explosion). The dispute at UBB is not really over what caused the ignition, but whether the longwall face area was in compliance with the law prior to the ignition, and what it was that caused the explosion to be so massive (i.e., was it the excess gas or coal dust?).

A friend of Coal Age wishing to remain anonymous