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Massey: "Everything Was OK" before Mine Blast

Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 workers, the mine's owner said Monday.

Massey Energy Co. board director Stanley Suboleski said the samples were taken by a foreman as part of a shift change exam of the mine. The examination also showed that air flow in the Upper Big Branch mine was fine.

Suboleski said all indications were that "at the start of the shift, everything was OK." The explosion occurred in the late afternoon of April 5.

Two other miners were injured in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.

Massey held a news conference Monday to address several issues related to the explosion. The news conference was held a day after President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Joe Manchin led a memorial for the fallen miners.

Massey Board Director Bobby Inman called allegations that the company put profits over safety a "big lie." He blamed such sentiment on the United Mine Workers' leaders and plaintiffs lawyers.

Massey is facing a shareholder lawsuit stemming from the explosion, as well as wrongful death litigation and mounting scrutiny from regulators.

Mine officials also announced that the Virginia-based company will cover health care and college expenses for the miners' children, and provide increased life insurance payouts.

Massey board director Robert Foglesong called the compensation package unprecedented. He said officials want to ease any financial concerns the families may have.

Board members attending the news conference also reiterated their support for Massey chief executive Don Blankenship.

Meanwhile, the United Mine Workers of America will participate in the investigation of the explosion at the nonunion Upper Big Branch mine.

The UMW said Monday it has been designated the official representative for some miners who work at the Montcoal mine in southern West Virginia, but it did not say how many or identify them. The union cited concerns about possible retribution by Massey in withholding the workers' names.

Federal law permits the union to represent miners during accident investigations if at least two employees of the nonunion mine agree, just as it did after the Sago Mine disaster near Buckhannon.

Neither Massey nor the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is challenging the union's role, spokesman Phil Smith said.

Nor did Massey stop a UMW representative from entering the property Friday, as International Coal Group Inc. did after the Sago explosion killed 12 men.

The UMW was forced into federal court weeks after the January 2006 blast when ICG refused to let union officials accompany state and federal investigators underground.

MSHA, which had already recognized the union as legal representative for several workers, went to U.S. District Court in Elkins seeking an order to grant the union access. Judge Robert E. Maxwell promptly ruled the union had the right to participate and valuable expertise to contribute.

In that case, the UMW represented two of the 97 employees. ICG had challenged the union's involvement because the UMW would not disclose the names of the two miners.

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