Air tests in mine found no high levels of gases

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 workers, and what caused the disaster remains unknown, the mine's owner said Monday.

Massey Energy Co. board director Stanley Suboleski said the samples were taken by foremen as part of a shift change exam at the Upper Big Branch mine, just "tens of minutes" before the blast. The examination also showed that air flow in the underground mine was fine.

"All the indicators are that at the start of the shift, everything was OK," said Suboleski, a mining engineer.

Suboleski, two other Massey board directors and chief executive Don Blankenship held a news conference Monday to address several issues related to the explosion, the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued the mine eight citations for violating preshift examination rules in 2010. Suboleski told reporters that the overall number of violations for this year and in 2009 was comparable to those at similar operations in the Appalachian coalfields. About 60 percent of Upper Big Branch's violations were deemed "nonserious or nonsubstantial" by inspectors, Suboleski said.

But Suboleski also noted media reports that the mine had been hit with an "inordinate" amount of MSHA orders last year alleging the most serious kinds of violations. Massey assigned two full-time employees to address safety issues at the mine, and the number of those orders dropped by 80 percent in the seven months before the blast, he said.

Massey Board Director Bobby Inman called allegations that the company put profits over safety a "big lie." He blamed such sentiment on plaintiffs' lawyers and leaders of the AFL-CIO and United Mine Workers union. The UMW said Monday that it would help investigate the blast, and both it and the AFL-CIO rejected Inman's comments as spin.

"The big truth is, 52 people have been killed on Massey property since 2000," said Phil Smith, a UMW spokesman. "No other coal company has had even half that. The numbers are pretty clear."

Inman also repeated the board's recent expression of confidence in Blankenship, who has become lightning rod for criticism of the company and its handling of the mine in the disaster's wake.

Massey is facing a shareholder lawsuit stemming from the explosion, as well as wrongful death litigation and mounting scrutiny from regulators.