Thursday, June 24, 2010

Massey sues federal regulators over mine ventilation rules

The Richmond, Va.-based company filed the lawsuit yesterday in Washington, D.C., against MSHA, the Department of Labor and three administrators.

MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said today the agency is reviewing the lawsuit.

"While we find the timing and substance of some of the arguments curious, we generally do not comment on pending or ongoing litigation," she said.

Currently, Massey has to convince federal mine regulators that each mine's individually designed ventilation plan will dilute methane, reduce coal dust and otherwise mitigate or eliminate conditions that could kill or injure the people working there.

MSHA cited the company's Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, W.Va., six times in March for violating its ventilation plans. Four of the citations were because air was blowing the wrong way in a mine section. Another was because the volume of air moving through a mine section was less than half of the minimum required by the ventilation plan.

The sixth violation was for operating a continuous mining machine when half of its water sprays were inoperable. The water sprays both reduce the amount of coal dust in the air and reduce the likelihood of friction igniting the methane-dust mixture produced by cutting into the coal.

An April 5 explosion at the mine killed 29 miners and injured two others. Federal and company investigators are still inspecting the mine to determine what happened.

Since the explosion, Massey CEO Don Blankenship repeatedly raised the issue of MSHA ordering it to turn off the scrubbers on about half of its continuous mining machines.

The scrubbers are designed to remove coal dust from the air pulled from where the continuing mining machine is digging into the coal seam. Massey claims in the lawsuit that the scrubbers also help prevent methane buildups at the mine face.

Massey claims in the lawsuit that MSHA bases its approval of ventilation plans on a "generic view" of what should be in a plan rather than conditions at the specific mine, but it doesn't provide any examples of where a ventilation plan didn't factor in a mine's specific conditions. The lawsuit also claims MSHA has arbitrarily denied the use of scrubbers, but doesn't explain why the agency allows them in some areas but not others.

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