State and federal officials hadn't decided Wednesday how to respond to a letter the head of Massey Energy Co. sent to four governors criticizing federal coal mine regulators.
"The cabinet is reviewing the letter, and we will take any action in due course," Gov. Steve Beshear said through a spokeswoman. The Mine Safety and Health Administration was still reviewing the letter and had no response Wednesday, a spokesman said.
In the letter, made public Tuesday, Massey CEO Don Blankenship says MSHA mandated an unsafe mine ventilation plan for Massey's Montcoal, W.Va., Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners died in a methane explosion April 5.
Massey also asked that coal dust scrubbers — or filters — attached to continuous miner machines be turned "back on," saying MSHA had disallowed them.
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"The majority of MSHA-approved ventilation plans require scrubbers if the cut is deeper than 20 feet," Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing director Johnny Greene said through a spokesman Wednesday. He said the state agency enforces MSHA regulations on scrubbers. "There is no conflict there. The mines in Kentucky that have scrubbers use them — they are on."
The company also said that MSHA was mandating a type of ventilation plan that is unsafe for longwall mines in certain kinds of coal seams, such as the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey said ventilation systems that trap methane in the mine, with circuitous air channels, are less safe than high-volume fans that quickly vent explosive air.
Kentucky has no longwall mines, which use 1,000-foot-long machines to slice through wide tunnels of coal, so the specific ventilation method Massey highlighted is not in use here, Greene said. But curtain systems are used in other underground mines, as are high-volume fans in a "push-pull" ventilation system that Massey said it preferred, Greene said.
"There is no one type of ventilation plan," he said. "Differences in mine size, mining method, equipment used and other factors determine the type of ventilation plan approved at a particular mine."
Greene said his office meets regularly with MSHA officials to discuss ventilation and roof control plans and other issues. He said conflicts are usually resolved at the district level.
Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett said "Blankenship makes some excellent points in his letter."
Massey is a member of the Kentucky Coal Association. Bissett said his organization didn't have input into the letter, but Massey sent a copy to the association. He said he thought Massey was trying to persuade state officials not to rush to judgment which could result in "increased safety measures that do not increase mine safety."
In his letter, Blankenship made a point of saying that Upper Big Branch, which uses longwall machines, exploded less than a month after implementing the type of ventilation plan Massey opposes. It stopped short of claiming the MSHA-approved ventilation plan caused the explosion.
Accusing MSHA of being an obstacle to safety is disingenuous, said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington mine safety advocate and former MSHA lawyer.
"When it comes to looking out for the health and safety of miners, I will take (MSHA chief) Joe Main any day over Don Blankenship," Oppegard said.
No matter what kind of ventilation plan is in place, MSHA has cited Massey hundreds of times for not following the plan at Upper Big Branch and at other mines such as its Freedom Energy mine in Pike County.
"What he doesn't say in the letter — just as a matter of common sense — is mines don't explode if you're following the ventilation plan," Oppegard said.