Mining Safety Device Disabled Before Deadly W.Va. Coal Blast, Workers Say

Feds call suggestions that gas detector was rewired 'deeply troubling.'

July 15, 2010 -- Weeks before the massive West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 workers, say some survivors, an electrician disabled a crucial piece of safety equipment so the underground work could continue even as dangerous levels of methane gas was accumulating around them.

The startling assertion came from three of the Upper Big Branch mine's survivors in interviews with National Public Radio that aired this morning.

The news outlet quoted one of the miners, Ricky Lee Campbell, a 24-year-old coal shuttle driver and roof bolter who witnessed the incident.

"Everybody was getting mad because the continuous miner kept shutting off because there was methane," he said. "So, they shut the section down and the electrician got into the methane detector box and rewired it so we could continue to run coal."

Campbell lost his job at the mine, but is pursuing a whistleblower claim against Massey Energy, the company that owns the mine where April's deadly explosion occurred.

According to Campbell and two other miners, who spoke with NPR on the condition they not be identified, the critical piece of safety equipment, if working properly, would have tripped the switch on the mining equipment and forced an evacuation until the air was clear of the dangerous, combustible gas.

Massey Energy has repeatedly released statements from CEO Don Blankenship indicating safety was a priority for the massive mining outfit. But internal documents have suggested otherwise, including one document indicating that the real priority at the company was "running coal," a mantra Blankenship allegedly repeated often to convey the need for productivity at all costs.

Massey confirmed to ABC News that the incident described by witnesses "may have occurred," but said it was not done to prevent methane gas readings from protecting miners. Instead, the company said, the malfunctioning detector was disabled while the equipment was being moved into a less volatile part of the mine. NPR reported that the mine workers dispute this account.

Federal Investigation into Safety Equipment Is Ongoing

Earlier this week, the company released an internal survey this week that it said indicated 97 percent of its workforce believes safety is important to the company.

The federal agency that regulates coal mines released a statement in response to the NPR report, saying that while its investigation is ongoing, the suggestion that safety equipment was disabled is "deeply troubling."

"Any allegation of tampering with methane detectors is deeply troubling," the statement says. "If true, such actions would clearly violate the law and would jeopardize the lives and safety of miners."

"Massey strongly forbids any improper conduct relating to any and all safety devices designed to protect the health and safety of company members," Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said in a statement emailed to ABC News. "Such actions never have been nor ever will be tolerated by Massey and contradict the Company's commitment to doing its part to safeguard miners from foreseeable harm."

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