MSHA links Upper Big Branch explosion to methane, coal dust

Arlington, VA – Faulty equipment and coal dust likely caused a small methane ignition to turn into a massive explosion that killed 29 miners at Upper Big Branch Mine-South in April, according to preliminary investigation results from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

At a public briefing Jan. 19, MSHA officials said sparks from a cutting tool known as a shearer may have ignited the methane gas. The shearer's water spray system was supposed to control coal dust and sparks, but MSHA said some sprays were missing or not working properly. Although investigators have not determined the source of the ignition, MSHA maintained that mine explosions are preventable.

Massey Energy Co., owner of the West Virginia mine, disputed MSHA's theory in a statement and attributed the explosion to an infusion of natural gas.

However, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) said the findings "underscore the need to provide MSHA with additional tools to keep a mine operator from using loopholes to avoid sanctions necessary to prevent horrific tragedies such as this one."

Officials expect a more complete report in 60-90 days.

The preliminary report came a day after MSHA updated victims' families in a closed-door meeting.

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