This and other photos of the Upper Big Branch shearer are displayed on the Massey Energy Co. website.

Upper Big Branch Investigators Focused on Shearer

MSHA officials met Tuesday night with families of the 29 miners killed in the April 2010 explosion to discuss their theory about its cause, with a mining machine being the focus.

Representatives of MSHA and Massey Energy Co. are meeting with families of the 29 miners who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va. The company and the agency don’t agree on what caused the blast, but the meetings indicate the investigation is close to reaching conclusions about the sequence of events. NPR reports that MSHA officials told the families that a shearer, a continuous mining machine used inside the mine, apparently produced sparks that ignited a small amount of methane, and excessive coal dust in the area then exploded. Some water jets on the shearer were not working, the investigators believe, both NPR and The New York Times reported. If the sprayers had been, they should have doused sparks and minimized dust accumulations.

MSHA posted this statement Tuesday from Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith about the ongoing investigation:

"The Department of Justice requested this week that the Mine Safety and Health Administration postpone any plans to hold public hearings and, in a prior request, asked that we not release transcripts of witness testimony gathered thus far in the Upper Big Branch Mine accident investigation. A letter from R. Booth Goodwin II, the U.S. attorney with the Southern District of West Virginia, explains that any public disclosure at this time 'poses a serious risk of hindering the criminal investigation into events at UBB.'

"From the very beginning, we have exercised extreme caution to ensure that DOJ has had every opportunity to run its own investigation. We have no intention of jeopardizing those efforts. Therefore, we've agreed to honor that department's request. We remain committed to holding public hearings and making the transcripts available once we are assured by the criminal prosecutors that doing so will not impede their ability to bring any wrongdoers to justice."

Meanwhile, Massey Energy will announce its fourth quarter 2010 financial results after the markets close Feb. 1.

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