Report: Massey workers told to disarm safety monitor in doomed mine

The bill, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), expands whistleblower protections for mine workers and makes it easier for federal regulators to shutter projects that habitually violate safety rules.

Miller's legislation is a direct response to the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, a Massey-owned project in the coal fields south of Charleston, W.Va. Though the cause of the disaster remains unknown, mine safety experts say the sheer size of the blast strongly suggests the buildup of methane, combined with accumulations of combustible coal dust.

To combat those conditions, mine operators are required to maintain sophisticated ventilation systems. A month before the blast, however, federal regulators had cited the UBB operator for, among other things, posing an improper plan to ventilate the mine of methane and dust; allowing the accumulation of combustible materials; failing to control dust; and failing to maintain escapeways.

Massey, for its part, has acknowledged that the methane sensor was disabled. But the company denies that it was done to keep the machine running amid dangerous conditions.

"The methane monitor was bypassed in order to move the miner from the area that did not have roof support to a safer area for repair," the company said in a statement issued Wednesday.

"But witnesses," NPR reported, "insist that the mining machine continued to cut rock."

Meanwhile, House GOP leaders are opposing Miller's mine-safety bill, arguing that it oversteps its stated goal of protecting miners. Many Republicans want to learn the cause of the UBB blast before installing preventive measures.

Davitt McAteer, a mine-safety expert investigating the disaster, told reporters Wednesday that difficult conditions in the mine will delay that probe for months.

"Our best estimate," he said, "is that we're looking at the end of the year for any kind of report."