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Massey: Methane Levels Spiked before W.Va. Blast

Abnormal amounts of volatile methane gas surged into the Upper Big Branch coal mine the day 29 men died in an explosion, owner Massey Energy Co. said Thursday.

The revelation contradicts earlier statements by Richmond, Va.-based Massey. In April, Massey board member Stan Suboleski said air samples taken shortly before the explosion didn't show high levels of explosive gases.

Now Massey says an analysis of readings collected by federal investigators from the mine's exhaust fan show unusually high levels of methane inundated the mine April 5. The fan is more than 2 miles from the mine's main working face, an area where Massey has said it found a crack in the floor that could have let methane bubble up.

The company stopped short of saying the methane caused the explosion. Government investigators suspect the blast stemmed from a mixture of methane and highly volatile coal dust.

"The methane gas data is a very important piece of evidence," Massey consultant Christopher Schemel said in a news release.

Left unexplained is how the surge could have resulted in an explosion. Modern mining equipment is required to have methane detectors that warn operators and then shut off automatically when the gas is detected at levels well below its explosive range of 5 percent to 15 percent of the atmosphere.

Massey called the release of methane "intense and overwhelming to the normal safety systems." The company has been accused in congressional testimony and news reports of overriding methane detectors. Massey has denied doing so.

Massey also didn't say how many hours before the blast the surge occurred. Investigators believe the explosion occurred just after 3 p.m. A company spokesman said the time of the inundation would be addressed in a conference call Thursday.

Massey's claims about an inundation also contradict a recent statement by the leader of one of three government investigations into the cause of the blast. Massey's original comments about air samples showing no high levels of gas were seemingly correct, said J. Davitt McAteer, appointed to head an independent investigation by Gov. Joe Manchin.

"We're aware of Massey's statement," McAteer said July 14. "We're not complete in the analysis of that, but there's some indications that the conditions were as Massey stated."

McAteer did not immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday.

Also unexplained is how the methane surge could have overwhelmed the mine's ventilation system. Massey uses twin fans capable of moving 400,000 cubic feet of air per minute to move air through the section of the mine where the explosion occurred. Air was supposed to be moving across the working face in sufficient volume to dilute methane and move it out of the mine.

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