Montcoal (West Virginia): Dozens of rescuers were trying to find 19 missing miners after an explosion killed seven workers Monday at an underground coal mine with a history of releasing vast amounts of highly combustible methane gas, the mine owner and mine safety officials said.
Nine rescue crews usually made up of six members each were at the southern West Virginia mine that covers several square miles, said federal Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere.
State mining director Ron Wooten said the blast happened around 3 pm at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston. The company did not provide details on the extent of the damage or if other miners had made it out on their own at the mine that has had three other fatalities in the last dozen years.
"We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing," said Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who confirmed the number of dead and missing in a statement.
He said the names would not be released until next-of-kin were notified.
One injured miner was in intensive care at Charleston Area Medical Center, spokeswoman Elizabeth Pellegrin said.
"We are preparing for other patients," she said.
No one has said what might have caused the explosion, but federal records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas into the mine every 24 hours. That is a large amount, said Dennis O'Dell, health and safety director for the United Mine Workers labor union.
Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining. The colorless, odorless gas is often sold to American consumers to heat homes and cook meals. In mines, giant fans are used to keep methane concentrations below certain levels. In 2006, 12 miners died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. If concentrations are kept between 5 percent and 15 percent, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter.
The sprawling Upper Big Branch, which cannot be seen from the road, has 19 openings and roughly 7-foot ceilings. Inside, it's criss-crossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and equipment. It is located in one of the state's more heavily mined areas. Along the main two-lane road lined with emergency vehicles Monday night are several plants where coal is prepared for shipment by train.
The bulk of the coal is removed with a machine called a longwall miner that uses a cutting head to move back and forth across the working face somewhat like a 1,000-foot-long deli slicer. Hydraulic roof supports shield the miners and equipment as the machines cut deeper into the mountain, with the roof in the mined-out areas caving in by design after workers move on, according to Massey's Web site.
The mine, run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co., also has caches of extra oxygen along emergency escape routes and airtight chambers designed to provide enough air to keep people alive for four days, according to Randy Harris, an engineering consultant who oversees installation of high-tech gear.
The mine produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees, most of whom work underground. They would not have all been working the same shift. The mine has two production shifts and one maintenance shift and extracts coal from the 72-inch Eagle coalbed, a thick seam for the region in 2010.
Firefighters in nearby Whitesville asked the town's First Baptist Church to keep its doors open in case family members of miners come looking for information, Pastor Brian Kelly said. No family members had arrived by early Monday evening.
Gov. Joe Manchin was out of town, but working to get back, according to his office. Chief of Staff Jim Spears went to the mine. President Barack Obama spoke Monday night with Manchin to express his condolences and to offer any assistance, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
At the mine, a worker was electrocuted while repairing equipment in 2003. An equipment operator died when a chunk of rock fell on him from the roof in 2001. Another worker was crushed in a roof collapse in 1998.
Massey Energy is a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., that has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee, according to the company's Web site.
Massey ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.
The federal mine safety administration fined Massey a then-record $1.5 million for 25 violations that inspectors concluded contributed to the deaths of two miners trapped in a fire in January 2006. The company later settled a lawsuit naming it, several subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship as defendants. Aracoma Coal Co. later paid $2.5 million in fines after the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges in the fire.
In each of the last three years, Massey has had multiple operations cited by MSHA as repeat violators of safety and health rules and ordered to improve their conditions. Upper Big Branch was not one of them.
Last year, the company's Tiller No. 1 underground mine in Virginia received citations for serious violations at 222 percent of the national average. In 2007, five Massey mines were cited, including the Twilight surface mine in Boone County, which MSHA said was 582 percent over the national rate of serious violations that year.
The United Mine Workers said it has personnel nearby and would help non-union Massey if the company asks. The UMW said it also is ready to help families of workers at the mine. Massey is virulently non-union and CEO Blankenship's television set with a UMW fired bullet in it still sits in his office.
West Virginia requires all underground mines to have wireless communications and tracking systems designed to survive explosions and other disasters.
Last year, the number of miners killed on the job in the US fell for a second straight year to 34, the fewest since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago. That was down from the previous low of 52 in 2008.
US Mine Safety and Health Administration documents show 18 of the deaths occurred in coal mines, down from 29 in 2008; and 16 were in gold, copper and other types of mines, down from 22 in 2008.
The deadliest year in recorded US coal mining history was 1907, when 3,242 deaths were reported. That year, the nation's deadliest mine explosion killed 358 people near Monongah, W.Va.