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NPR NEWS INVESTIGATION: Coverage of mine safety in the U.S. after an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 workers.

Massey Energy Wants To Seal Upper Big Branch Coal Mine

The site of last year's deadly coal mine explosion in West Virginia may be abandoned and sealed-off, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

29 coal miners died at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine a year ago in the nation's worst mine disaster in four decades.

"Massey Energy has indicated it wants to seal the UBB mine," says MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere. "A meeting is set for May 5 to discuss the plan for sealing the mine."

Massey has yet to respond to NPR's request for comment.

Sealing coal mines after mine disasters is common, says Rod Breland, a former MSHA official.

"It's not really surprising given the devastation and the loss of life," Breland adds. "The mine may have too many bad connotations to continue to operate."

There may also be too much damage to make rehabilitation feasible and to remove the longwall and continuous mining machines still inside. They're worth millions of dollars but Massey has reported that it's insured against some losses.

Sealing the mine involves closing off all external entry points. But that doesn't necessarily mean that valuable coal reserves are lost.

"The company could put in a new shaft and slope and access the reserves from a different direction," says Larry Grayson, a former coal mine manager who is now a professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State University.

But there must be "sufficient reserves to justify" the cost of essentially building a new mine, Grayson adds.

A new mine must go through a lengthy permitting process. But that would enable Massey to retire the infamous Upper Big Branch name while still having access to the mine's coal.

Massey provided new jobs to Upper Big Branch coal miners displaced by the explosion so sealing the mine may not result in any job losses.

Sealing the mine is a complete surprise to lawyers who are suing Massey and still need access to Upper Big Branch.

"The mine is the subject of at least two court orders covering multiple wrongful death suits," says Mark Moreland, an attorney who represents the families of two Upper Big Branch victims. "Massey cannot seal the mine without violating those court orders, which permit our experts to review evidence underground."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.