JULIAN, W.Va. — Several places in a West Virginia mine needed a coating of pulverized stone to cover explosive coal dust shortly before an explosion killed 29 miners in April, according to copies of handwritten logs obtained by the Associated Press.
The logs portray Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine as a troubled operation that routinely had dangerous coatings of coal dust — the raw material for a deadly blast. The problem persisted on April 5, the day of the worst US coal mine explosion in 40 years.
As Michael Elswick was wrapping up work inside the Upper Big Branch mine, he phoned a colleague on the surface with the ominous if relatively routine report about dust. Just 32 minutes later, Elswick and the other men were dead.
Investigators suspect the explosion began with methane, then fed on coal dust as it turned 90-degree corners, rounded a 1,000-foot-wide block of coal, and built enough force to kill men more than a mile away.
The information Elswick and his co-workers recorded in the hours, weeks, and months before the disaster shows it struck in what could be considered a predictable place: a mine with a chronic, stubborn coating of coal dust, which can make a minor flare-up much, much worse.
According to the log book, provided by the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, Elswick’s co-worker Scott Halstead reported problems with five of the six belts he inspected the day of the explosion. The reports show the need for rock dust along belts stretching more than 3 miles underground in the southern West Virginia mine owned by
But the page that would list corrective actions taken for the issues Elswick and Halstead reported that afternoon is blank.
Shane Harvey, Massey’s general counsel, acknowledged that the problems probably could not have been fixed between Elswick’s call and the time of the blast.