The Upper Big Branch – Never Again documentary points out that the government insisted on changes in the directional flow of the air at the Upper Big Branch mine (UBB) that resulted in a reduced volume of airflow. One reason suggested for the government requiring these changes was simply to demonstrate their authority over mine management.
But there is possibly a somewhat less cynical explanation for the government actions. It has to do with the fact that some of the key Mine Safety and Health Administration personnel had extensive experience with longwall mining in the Pittsburgh Seam but only limited longwall experience in Central Appalachia where UBB was mining.
Keep in mind that methane gas will not explode at percentages of the atmosphere less than 5% nor greater than 15%. Therefore, Central Appalachian longwall operations in above-drainage mines, which are characterized by low methane emissions in both the face and the gob, seek to keep the mined out areas of their mines at far less than 5% methane—in fact at zero percent if it were possible. This is the safest thing to do and since the mines do not produce enough gas to capture and sell at a profit, no effort is made to recover the gas. The objective of mines like UBB is to simply sweep the gas out of the mine as quickly as possible with high volumes of airflow. UBB had a ventilation system designed and in place for 15 years that succeeded in doing just that.
Pittsburgh Seam longwall mines on the other hand, produce much higher levels of coal gas (methane) while mining than do the above-drainage Central Appalachian mines. The Pittsburgh seam mines emit gas at the face and in the gob at levels that make capturing and later selling or using the gas a profitable venture and so they do not simply sweep the gas out of the mine. They instead drill de-gas holes in advance of the mining and pump as much gas as possible out of the longwall gob area after the coal is removed.
The government personnel may have simply failed to recognize the different approach to dealing with gas at UBB. Consequently they required a ventilation approach similar to what they were familiar with in Northern Appalachia. In doing so they failed to address the fundamentally critical importance of getting the gas out of the mine since there were no plans for de-gassing the longwall gob any other way.
The change in the ventilation system may not have contributed to the natural gas explosion at UBB as gas emissions from the coal seam were not a factor in the explosion anyway. But the forced use of a ventilation plan in a Central Appalachian mine that is best suited for a Pennsylvania mine is an issue that needs addressing if accidents are to be lessened.
The government needs to allow miners and engineers with hundreds of years of collective experience to have meaningful input into the ventilation system to be used at their properties. These mine engineers, who know their area best, deserve a chance to use the best ventilation plan that is achievable – not one someone in D.C. or a field office prefers.
If the politicians truly want to prevent UBB from happening again, they need to rely on local experience and technical expertise rather than the wielded power of government or the experience that their agent may have gathered in another region of the country. Unfortunately the choice they made at UBB increased the likelihood of a mine explosion rather than decreased it.