Late yesterday, Massey Energy formally asked the Mine Safety and Health Administration for permission to seal the Upper Big Branch mine.

"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."

The only way Massey, which is currently in the process of merging with Alpha Natural Resources, could restart operations once the mine is sealed is if it accessed any coal reserves from a different direction.  But that would require a lengthy permitting process--and given the publicity that Massey attracted for its appalling safety record, it probably won't be worth the effort.

There could be one potential roadblock to sealing the mine, however.  The lawyers suing Massey claim that any plans to seal the mine would be illegal.

"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."

If the victims' lawyers get their way, it might be awhile before the mine can be sealed.  Stay tuned.

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