CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Obstructions and other hazards inside the Upper Big Branch mine are slowing a probe of what caused the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in decades, and at least one investigation may not be finished until the end of the year, a special adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin said Wednesday.
"We don't have a very good system to understand what's going on underground," said J. Davitt McAteer, whom Manchin appointed to monitor state and federal investigations into the April 5 explosion that killed 29 at the mine operated by Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal.
Investigative teams are dealing with hazards that include pools of standing water, sections of roof that have fallen in areas investigators need to explore and a lack of electricity to power lights and pumps.
"It is very dark. It is very difficult to see," said McAteer, who has made two trips into the mine since the investigation started June 24. "It is debris-strewn."
Despite that, McAteer said there is a decent chance investigators will pinpoint the cause of the explosion, a task he called "terribly important."
McAteer also confirmed the FBI is conducting its own probe of the explosion, but he said that should not interfere with the investigations being done by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. The agencies are following rules to preserve evidence because it may be needed in a criminal case, McAteer said.
McAteer led MSHA during the Clinton administration. Manchin has tapped him to reprise the role he played in 2006, when he reviewed and recommended changes to state mining laws following the death of 12 miners at the International Coal Group's Sago Mine and two miners at Massey's Aracoma mine.
The miners at Sago died after being trapped underground following an explosion. The two miners at Aracoma died after they became lost during a mine fire. Both incidents occurred within weeks of each other in January 2006.
McAteer said compared to Sago, the explosion at Upper Big Branch was "enormous."
"The size here ... is much bigger," he said. "You're looking at a distance covering two and a half miles."
Which blast was more powerful is less clear to McAteer. MSHA has said for months that it suspects the cause at Upper Big Branch was an explosive combination of methane gas and coal dust.
Investigators began probing the explosion in early April, but only shifted to exploring underground after the mine was deemed safe in late June.
So far, they've interviewed 126 witnesses and have approximately 100 more to go, McAteer said. That may include officials at the Massey subsidiary that operates the mine or the Richmond, Va.-based parent company itself.
"We intend to go up that chain as far as necessary," McAteer said.
Massey general counsel Shane Harvey said the company had no problem with McAteer's investigation. The company has taken issue with the way MSHA is conducting its probe, appealing to the agency to be allowed to collect its own samples and take pictures underground, among other things.
"As I've said before, our complaint is about the way that the federal investigatory officials have prevented us from collecting our own evidence and have allowed evidence to be stepped on and trampled on before it can be photographed and mapped," Harvey said.
Calls to MSHA were not immediately returned. State Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training spokeswoman Leslie Fitzwater said the agency supports McAteer's work. The state's report is not expected to be finished before the end of 2010, Fitzwater said.