A sudden inundation of natural gas triggered the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine, according to a documentary commissioned by former Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship.
The 51-minute video, posted to YouTube on Monday, asserts that MSHA strong-armed Massey into implementing an inadequate ventilation plan at the mine, based on standards that did not provide protection against “a high-velocity gas leak."
The documentary, which includes interviews with Blankenship as well as a geologist, a mine-explosion expert, a chemistry professor and others, argues that “scientific evidence disproves a coal-dust explosion” as the cause of the accident, as MSHA concluded in its investigation.
“Forensic evidence indicates that natural gas inundated the mine through a crack that was found in the mine’s floor,” the narrator says. Later, he declares: “We now see that reporters, unions and the government ignored the evidence that supports a theory that makes sense.”
MSHA, in its report on the Upper Big Branch accident, said the accident "began with a methane ignition that transitioned into a small methane explosion that then set off a massive coal-dust explosion." Massey Energy "could have prevented the methane ignition and explosion had it maintained its longwall shearer in safe operating condition," according to MSHA's report. However, the company "operated the shearer at UBB with worn bits and missing water sprays, creating an ignition source for methane on the longwall."
Massey and former parent company Performance Coal Co. "violated fundamental safety standards by permitting significant amounts of float coal dust, coal dust and loose coal to accumulate in the mine," MSHA asserts. "This became the fuel for the explosion."
The documentary, however, argues that the explosion was caused by a sudden release of natural gas from a reservoir deep below the coal seam. The inundation of natural gas overwhelmed the substandard ventilation system that MSHA forced Massey Energy to implement, the documentary suggests.
“MSHA claims that Massey’s ventilation was subpar,” the narrator asserts. “But Blankenship says that it was in fact MSHA’s plan and that the mine exploded just days after [MSHA’s] requirements were fully enacted.”
In his blog, Blankenship has said that government regulators have focused too much effort on detecting and preventing coal-bed methane, ignoring the threat of natural-gas inundations, which he admits are rare. "This is true despite the fact that natural gas is slightly more explosive ... and that it can appear unexpectedly, suddenly and in very large quantities," Blankenship said in a blog post.
The documentary clearly is an effort to exonerate Blankenship by butressing his theory on the mine tragedy and discrediting the agency that said it found "multiple examples of systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators." The video notes that J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster, was arrested for drunk driving and was the subject of a federal fraud probe. It also suggests that there are “questions” regarding the credentials of MSHA Administrator Joe Main.
Still, the former Massey CEO insists that the purpose of the film is “to start a public discussion about the need for cooperation among the mining industry, government and mining experts to improve mining safety.”
“Analyzing forensic evidence from tragedies like the explosion at Upper Big Branch and adopting innovations and technology developed by coal companies could bring improvements to mine safety,” explains the text accompanying the video on YouTube. “Don Blankenship is concerned that improvements in mine safety will not be made as long as the geological characteristics of mines and mine disasters are not fully investigated.”
Manchin Demands that Film Producer Cease and Desist
On Monday, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who appears in the documentary, fired off a letter demanding that the producer cease and desist distribution of the film.
“Adroit Films, the propaganda firm behind this shameful documentary, never disclosed to me the intent of this film,” Manchin said in a news release. “They lied to my face and told me this documentary was focused on mine safety, an issue I have been committed to since the Farmington Mine disaster that killed my uncle and 77 miners. Had I known the film was in any way associated with Don Blankenship, I would have never agreed to the interview.”
Manchin said the producer used just a small portion of his 30-minute interview in an effort “to vindicate Don Blankenship.”
“Blankenship should be more concerned with his role in the deaths of 29 brave miners and the ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation rather than filming a propaganda documentary,” Manchin said. “I am not only livid that I was lied to, but I am even more enraged that Don Blankenship would manipulate a tragedy to promote himself and his own agenda. I am going to pursue every legal recourse available against Adroit’s despicable tactics. The most tragic part of all of this is that the families of these miners are forced to suffer yet again at the hands of Don Blankenship.”