By Vicki Smith and Tim Huber
Relatives of the 29 men killed in the deadliest U.S. coal accident since 1970 said Thursday the findings of an independent probe confirm what they long suspected, saying Massey Energy Co. cared more about coal than workers’ safety, threatened to fire those who complained and let dangerous conditions build in an ill-fated mine.
Now the families of victims of last year’s West Virginia mine explosion say they want justice, even as the Virginia-based company disputed the findings released in a 113-page report Thursday.
“I want to see men pay for this,” said Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died in the chain-reaction blasts that rocked the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal on April 5, 2010.
“I do want them to go to jail. That’s what they deserve,” he said. “They’re still able to breathe. They’re still able to get out and walk ... My brother and 28 other men, they can’t do nothing.”
The independent report by a former top federal mine regulator was released Thursday. It said Massey recklessly ignored the most basic safety practices in the industry, allowing highly explosive coal dust and methane gas to accumulate when it failed to provide either enough fresh air flow or enough pulverized limestone on the mine’s walls to render coal dust inert.
The gas and dust provided an ample, widespread source of fuel when the inevitable spark came from the worn teeth on a cutting machine that hit sandstone. Broken water sprayers failed to douse the small fireball, the report said, and the explosion rocketed “like a line of gunpowder” through the mine in multiple directions, “obliterating everything in its path.” It all happened in less than three minutes.
The report also cast blame on state and federal regulators for failing to adequately enforce safety laws at the sprawling operation. But it noted that the explosion could have been prevented “had Massey Energy followed basic, well-tested and historically proven safety procedures.”
Massey disputed that, saying the explosion was sparked by an uncontrollable inundation of natural gas.
“Our experts feel confident that coal dust did not play an important role,” said Massey general counsel Shane Harvey. “Our experts continue to study the explosion and our goal is to find answers and technologies that ultimately make mining safer.”
That didn’t sit well Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne ran the mining machine. He’d hoped Massey would “step up and say we are responsible.”
But Quarles has worked for Massey for nine years and knows how it operates, so he wasn’t surprised to read the findings that it flouted safety laws and forced men to work in dangerous conditions.
“People get jobs from Massey, and they make good money, same as I did,” he said. “But I also know they was nothing but outlaws. ... They don’t want to listen to nobody. They want to do it their way.”
The report paints a disturbing picture of that way.
Upper Big Branch, it says, was a place where foremen regularly improvised their ventilation plans, where anyone who dared challenge authority was threatened with firing, and where the only thing that mattered was made crystal-clear in a single practice — calls to the surface with production reports every 30 minutes for company executives.
It said 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.
Air routinely flowed in the wrong direction, if at all. There was so little fresh air that the normally chilly underground environment grew hot enough to make men sweat.
It was, the report concluded, a place where the crew could do nothing to save itself when the inevitable happened.
“Anybody that has to go to jail is going to have to go to jail — and not just a superintendent and a mine foreman,” said Quarles, an underground miner for 34 years.
The 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 explosion.
Massey, of Richmond, Va., is in the process of being acquired by Alpha Natural Resources. An Alpha spokesman said the company plans to retrain Massey employees and add 270 safety positions when it takes over June 1.
But at a media briefing, McAteer, indicated concern that Alpha plans to keep a Massey executive in charge of safety when the companies merge and questioned whether it has “grasped the magnitude of the problem they’re buying into.”
It’s time the entire mining industry and the U.S. Congress “step forward and change the way business is being done,” he said. “We are long past the time in this country where we can accept the loss of 29 individuals.”
The report is the first of several that are expected. State and federal investigators are pursuing their own investigations, and Massey has said it’s doing its own but has not said whether it would make a report public.
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.
Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said it would be unfair to hold executives and directors “legally accountable and personally liable” unless evidence proves they ordered someone to deviate from safe practices.
“I think they personally are obligated and view themselves as being responsible for mine safety as well as for the company’s profits,” he said. However, “they are not physically at the mine. I don’t think the breakdown that leads to a situation like we have here can be found at that level.”
Federal officials praised McAteer’s findings as vindication, but the report said MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training did not properly police the mine.
“The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine is proof positive that the agency failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners,” the report said of MSHA.
MSHA director Joe Main said his agency did its job, and at some point mining companies need to be responsible for their operations.
Federal inspectors issued more closure orders at Upper Big Branch than any of the more than 14,000 mines the agency oversees. The orders shut down operations on a section until a safety violation is fixed.
McAteer said so many things were wrong at Upper Big Branch that the report defied a simple summary. But the company’s reckless disregard for safety is illustrated in the critical lack of rock dusting equipment, stockpiles and people to apply it.
People still would have died had the mine been rock-dusted, McAteer said.
“The explosion would have occurred on the longwall, and the deaths would have occurred at the longwall,” he said, “but it would not have spread.”
Instead, the blast ricocheted throughout much of the 2.7 miles of underground workings at 3:01 p.m., less than two minutes after the mining machine was manually shut down — a sign, the report says, that the crew knew something was about to go horribly wrong.
“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.
The report concluded the mine’s ventilation system was badly compromised, and records show Upper Big Branch was cited 64 times for related violations in 2009.
Massey has spent months blaming the federal government, claiming changes that MSHA ordered contributed to the problems.
But the independent investigators found no evidence to support those claims. Nor did they find any records of a complaint.
“Every problem that there was, they knew it. It had been reported. Over and over and over,” said Sherry Mullins Scurlock, sister of Rex Mullins.
She choked back tears as she held the elbow of her mother Joan, wearing a white shirt with a black rendering of her son’s face.
“I’ve lost my brother because of the dollar,” she said. “Because of the dollar.”
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-- Associated Press reporter Lawrence Messina contributed to this report. Huber reported from Charleston, W.Va.
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Online: Independent report: http://nttc.edu/ubb/