Questions Raised About Federal Probe of West Virginia Mine Blast

December 13, 2011

Newly disclosed records show U.S. Labor Department officials stopped independent investigators from questioning how federal regulators handled methane leaks from the floor of the Upper Big Branch mine several times before last year’s disaster.

In April 2010, 29 men died at Massey Energy’s southern West Virginia mine in an explosion the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration says was sparked by worn and broken equipment, fueled by a deadly buildup of methane and coal dust, and allowed to propagate because of clogged and broken water sprayers.

MSHA’s final report on the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades says the naturally occurring methane gas was leaking from cracks in the floor.

The Charleston Gazette said investigative interview transcripts released by MSHA show an independent investigation team appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin wanted to know how the federal agency had handled similar methane leaks in 1997, 2003 and 2004.

But attorney Derek Baxter, a member of MSHA’s investigation team, tried to stop that line of questioning during interviews with witnesses, and then tried to keep his objections from appearing in the public record of the probe.

The exchange occurred in June 2010, during an interview with longtime MSHA employee and former southern West Virginia district supervisor Stephen Gigliotti. He was initially appointed to the agency’s internal review team for Upper Big Branch but later removed.

Davitt McAteer, who led the independent team, called the maneuver to cut off questions from attorney Patrick McGinley “unfortunate.”

“The outcome of the report that was released two days ago by MSHA suggests these were very pertinent questions and a very important line of questioning,” McAteer said. “It’s truly unfortunate that the agency for whatever reason tried to move away from this line of questioning.”

Massey and the Upper Big Branch mine are now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.

Like MSHA and the United Mine Workers of America, McAteer’s team concluded that Massey ignored the most basic safety standards in coal mining and allowed conditions it knew were dangerous to exist at the mine long before the blast.

MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said the agency’s ongoing internal review will likely report that inspectors could have done more to follow up on earlier incidents involving methane.

“It appears to me that we didn’t address it,” he said, “but I’m going to wait until they tell me that in writing.”

Stricklin, however, continues to insist the blast should have been prevented _ and would have been if Massey had done proper safety inspections, maintained its equipment and adequately dusted the mine with pulverized limestone to render coal dust inert.

“A hell of a lot of stuff has to go wrong for you to have an explosion,” he said.

Some relatives of the victims, however, say they hold both state and federal regulators partially responsible for the disaster because they failed to use all the tools they had to keep the mine safe or shut it down.

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