The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 19, 2011

MSHA investigation not complete, but mostly in line with independent panel's report

By Taylor Kuykendall
Register-Herald Reporter

BECKLEY — The public received a few answers to questions about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion Thursday from an independent team, but federal investigators are still completing their investigation.

Mine, Safety and Health Administration Assistant Secretary Joseph A. Main said in a telephone call before the news conference on the release of the independent report that the MSHA investigation would not be completed by the June 29 hearing the agency will hold to update families. The administration will still be presenting their findings but said the report was not finalized.

“I think you’re going to find our report paralleling in several ways to this report,” Main said. “If you look at the way MSHA has traditionally released reports, it’s going to be a pretty in-depth technical report that, to a degree, gets into a lot more detail, substantive information.”

Though portions of the independent report were critical of MSHA, Main said most of the findings in the report paralleled MSHA’s investigation.

“While our own investigation is ongoing, it is fair to say that MSHA is in agreement with many of the (Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel) findings,” Main said in a statement. “The panel’s report echoes many of the findings that MSHA has been sharing with victims’ families and the public.”

The report, which refutes Massey’s theories of the events leading up to the explosion, does support MSHA’s initial findings about the mechanical causes of the blast and the circumstances leading up to it.

“This is a mine that was operated by Massey Energy, Performance Coal, and they had a responsibility to run that mine in a safe way and protect those miners, and they failed to do that,” Main said. “The report does point out a number of places where that occurred. As a result, there was a tragedy like that on the 5th.”

As far as the report’s conclusion that Massey Energy had fostered a culture of flagrantly avoiding safety procedure, Main said he didn’t need to say much.

“I think the record speaks for itself,” he said. “Just look at the number of orders MSHA issued for that mine.... Just look at the facts. Look at the record of the mining company. Look at our impact inspection results.”

In a news release, Main said maintaining the safety of the miners is the responsibility of the mine operator.

“We are playing a significant role in making mines safer,” he said in the statement. “Yet, there are mine operators that don’t get it. They operate differently when MSHA is not there, and they know MSHA cannot be there all the time. That’s why we have called on Congress to provide us with more tools to protect miners. We need to make sure that recalcitrant operators do get it.”

Pinning down what happened is difficult and can at times be emotional, but Main said the purpose is to prevent future accidents and provide answers to families.

“I’ve done investigations all my life, and those are things that you don’t like to do but you have to do because something failed,” Main said. “... We are looking to glean details to find out what we can do better.”

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com