MSHA says independent study vindicates agency

By Vicki Smith

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 19 2011 9:42 a.m. MDT

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Massey Energy Co. recklessly ignored safety and allowed dangerous conditions to build inside a West Virginia mine until a blast last year killed 29 men in the deadliest U.S. coal accident since 1970, according to an independent report released Thursday.

The report by a former top federal mine regulator, commissioned by the state's then-governor, said Massey could have prevented the April 2010 disaster with standard safety practices, including better ventilation to reduce potentially explosive levels of gas and dust in the tunnels.

"A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking," the study concluded.

The study supported the federal government's theory that methane gas mixed with huge volumes of explosive coal dust turned a small fireball into a preventable earth-shattering explosion

"The disaster at Upper Big Branch was manmade and could have been prevented had Massey Energy followed basic, well-tested and historically proven safety procedures," investigators wrote.

Virginia-based Massey did not immediately respond. It is in the process of being acquired by Alpha Natural Resources. Massey executives have declined to be interviewed by investigators.

The report, released online at the same time it was presented privately to families of the victims, is the first of several that are expected. State and federal investigators are pursuing their own investigations, while federal prosecutors conduct a criminal investigation.

The 113-page report was compiled by a team led by former federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief J. Davitt McAteer, who was appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin to examine the April 5, 2010, explosion.

McAteer's report has 11 findings and 52 recommendations, ranging from better monitoring of underground conditions to subjecting companies' boards of directors to penalties if they fail to make safety a priority.

Federal officials praised the findings as vindication of their theory.

"The finding is that this was a preventable disaster and that's something I believed from day one," Mine Safety and Health Administration director Joe Main told The Associated Press. "The mine operator just miserably failed to comply with the law and put into place a number of protections."

The report echoes what MSHA will say when it briefs the public on June 29 on its findings, said U.S. Department of Labor solicitor Patricia Smith.

It also offers disturbing details about the conditions in 2.7 miles of active underground mining where air routinely flowed in the wrong direction, if at all. Men were regularly forced to wade through chest-deep water, and the safety inspector who was supposed to file pre-shift reports on air and methane readings did so for weeks before the blast without even turning on his gas detector.

There was so little fresh air flowing to clear away methane, coal dust and other dangerous gases that the normally chilly underground environment grew hot enough to make men sweat.

"It literally felt like you were melting," said roof bolter Michael Ellison, who had called in sick the day of the blast. His shift started at 7 a.m., he told investigators, "and by 8:30, all of us looked like we had been standing out in a rainstorm, just soaking wet."

It was, the report concludes, a mine where the crew could do nothing to save itself when the inevitable happened.

"Everything just went black. It was like sitting in the middle of a hurricane, things flying, hitting you," Tim Blake, one of two survivors, told investigators.

The other, James Woods, was so severely injured he may never be able to talk about what he endured.

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