W.Va. gov. orders inspections for 200 coal mines

Thursday, April 15, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Joe Manchin on Wednesday ordered the immediate inspection of all underground coal mines in West Virginia after an explosion last week killed 29 miners and injured two.

Manchin also asked for the state's more than 200 underground coal mines to cease production Friday to mourn the victims of the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

"I don't know any better way to honor the miners we've lost and the families who are grieving so much," Manchin said. The economic cost of such a shut down would "take care of itself," the governor said.

Manchin wants the miners to show up for work, but to help check on safety instead of producing coal.

"If they don't go to work, they're not honoring our fallen heroes," Manchin said. "I don't think there will be a mine or a miner that won't honor those fallen heroes."

If the industry complies with Manchin's request, about 1 million tons of coal will not be mined, based on 2008 production data. At roughly $60 a ton, the work stoppage could cost about $60 million in lost production.

The executive order tells state regulators to start checking mines that have repeatedly had combustion risks over the last year.

Highly explosive methane gas is believed to have played a role in the April 5 blast at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine. The levels of gas have also been a constant problem since the explosion, preventing crews from finding four missing miners for several days and this week keeping investigators from going underground to look for a cause of the blast.

Manchin wants the high-priority mines inspected within two weeks. His order said inspectors who find such risks or other health or safety violations can partially evacuate the mine or close it.

"We will focus initially on those that we regard as somewhat troublesome," said Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

Inspectors will start their blitz Friday, looking at electrical installations as well as methane and coal dust controls, including ventilation and the spraying of powdered rock to dilute explosive coal dust.

"If we see other problems, obviously we'll address those as well," Wooten said.

A call to the West Virginia Coal Association was not returned about the governor's proposed work stoppage, and Massey didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Meanwhile, it could be up to two weeks before investigators can venture inside Upper Big Branch to look for a cause of the blast, which destroyed ventilation systems. The mine also needs to be checked for potential roof collapses.

Massey is expected to drill more boreholes into the mine to help improve ventilation, state mine safety spokeswoman Jama Jarrett said.

The delay isn't unusual. It was 24 days before investigators went underground at West Virginia's Sago mine, where 12 miners died after an explosion in January 2006.

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