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US conducts criminal inquiry into mine blast

Associated Press / May 15, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors said yesterday that they are investigating whether there was “willful criminal activity’’ by the company that operates the West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers died in an accident last month.

The US attorney’s office for the Southern District of West Virginia said in a letter that investigators are looking into possible criminal conduct by the mine’s operator, Performance Coal, and its directors, officers, and agents.

The letter, obtained by the Associated Press, asks the Labor Department to hold off pursuing dozens of civil cases against Performance for alleged mine safety violations.

Performance is a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine.

Last month, federal law enforcement officials said the FBI had interviewed nearly two dozen current and former employees of Massey in the investigation. But the Justice Department declined to publicly confirm there was a criminal inquiry.

In the letter yesterday, Assistant US Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II said his office wants to make sure the pending civil cases don’t interfere with the criminal probe. He asks Douglas White, a top lawyer for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, to delay 44 civil penalty cases against Performance that could form the basis of criminal penalties under federal mine laws.

The cases involve about 500 citations issued between June 3, 2006, and April 5, 2010 — the day of the explosion — according to a federal official familiar with the records. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

About 300 of the citations are for “significant and substantial’’ violations, which are among the most serious that can be alleged at a mine, the official said.

More than 90 allege the mine operator’s high negligence or reckless disregard for safety standards.

The citations range from inadequate roof support and ventilation problems to improper accumulations of combustible dust, the official said.