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MSHA shakes up disaster team after learning of 'methane outbursts'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal regulators investigating the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster have removed one member of an internal review team after learning he was involved in the agency's response to previous "methane outbursts" at the mine. Those outbursts are a current focus of the state and federal probe.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials are scrambling to figure out what preventative actions -- if any -- agency officials or Massey Energy mine managers took following the incidents in 2003 and 2004 at the Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County.

Investigators are concerned that later gas outbursts, in which mining activity caused large holes in the mine floor to open up and release methane, could have been one possible source of explosive gases involved in the April 5 blast that killed 29 workers and injured two others.

Internal MSHA reports about the two methane outbursts were made public last week by The Charleston Gazette.

At the time of the previous incidents, longtime MSHA staffer Stephen Gigliotti was the agency's acting district manager in Southern West Virginia. Reports on the two incidents were directed to him, with recommendations from MSHA experts about what should be done to prevent a recurrence or at least minimize the potential dangers.

After the disaster, Gigliotti was initially made part of an MSHA team assigned to conduct an "internal review" of agency inspection and enforcement actions at Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion.

Last week, MSHA spokesman Jesse Lawder confirmed that Gigliotti had been removed from that assignment.

In an e-mail response to questions, Lawder said Gigliotti "was removed from the review team to avoid the potential for a conflict of interest since he was previously the acting district manager for district 4."

Gigliotti could not be reached for comment.

Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said the situation shows the need for changes in the way agency actions prior to major mining accidents are investigated.

In past mining disasters, MSHA has typically appointed officials from outside the district to both investigate the accident and to look into how well MSHA performed prior to the deaths. But Oppegard noted that it still amounts to the agency investigating itself, and that various connections about staff in small agency like MSHA are difficult to entirely avoid.

"There should be an outside, independent examination of MSHA's actions when you have a disaster," Oppegard said Friday. "The current system is fraught with conflicts of interest."

The Upper Big Branch explosion was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. Investigators believe it involved an ignition of methane gas and was probably made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust.

Along with civil investigations by MSHA, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, Congress and special investigator Davitt McAteer, the Upper Big Branch explosion is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

Already, the Obama administration, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main have been under fire for refusing to conduct the Upper Big Branch investigation through a public hearing. In closed-door interviews, MSHA officials have been questioning not only Massey workers and company officials, but also some of the agency's own inspectors, about what happened at the mine.

In the last week, investigators have been closely examining the MSHA reports about the 2003 and 2004 methane outbursts at Upper Big Branch and asking other agency officials for documents that would explain what actions were taken following the incidents.

MSHA officials have refused to discuss the incidents and have declined comment on the agency reports about them.

In one incident, on Feb. 18, 2004, workers deep inside Upper Big Branch heard a "big thump," just before the mine floor opened up, creating a 240-foot-long fracture that sent methane gas pouring into the mine.

Massey reported that other incident, on July 3, 2003, as a "methane inundation" of Upper Big Branch caused by an "extreme bump" and heaving of the mine floor.

"Mine personnel described the July 2003 outburst as a very high pressure event, comparable to the sound of a jet engine," according to an internal MSHA report.

Federal regulators concluded after the two incidents that a reservoir of natural gas below the Upper Big Branch Mine might easily be released into the active mining operation. They recommended a series of steps to try to prevent such incidents, or at least to control them, hopefully preventing an explosion or fire.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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