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Study faults owner in W.Va. mine explosion

Regulators also accused of lax oversight

Crosses and mining helmets were lined up for a memorial service for 29 coal miners who died last year. Crosses and mining helmets were lined up for a memorial service for 29 coal miners who died last year. (Jason Reed/Reuters/File 2010)
By Vicki Smith and Tim Huber
Associated Press / May 20, 2011

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BECKLEY, W.Va. — Massey Energy Company 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 US coal accident since 1970, according to an independent report released yesterday.

The report by a former top federal mine regulator, commissioned by the governor, said Massey could have prevented the April, 5, 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.

It also cast blame on state and federal regulators for failing to adequately enforce safety laws at the sprawling Upper Big Branch mine.

The report was released to members of the victims’ families during a private briefing. Several said that its findings did not surprise them because they knew the mine was not safe.

“They knew the men were entering a dangerous mine, that this could have happened at any time, and they still continued to put the men at risk,’’ said Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died in the explosion.

Gary Quarles, father of miner Gary Wayne Quarles, said the report confirmed what he believed — that his son and his crewmates saw something about to go wrong and tried to flee. Their bodies were found in a place they should not have been.

“Massey is just above the law. They don’t want to listen,’’ Quarles said.

The study noted that the explosion could have been prevented “had Massey Energy followed basic, well-tested, and historically proven safety procedures.’’

It also supported the federal government’s theory that methane gas mixed with huge volumes of explosive coal dust turned a small fireball into an earth-shattering explosion

Massey disputed the report, saying the explosion was sparked by an uncontrollable inundation of natural gas inside the mine.

“Our experts feel confident that coal dust did not play an important role,’’ Shane Harvey, Massey’s general counsel, said in a statement. “Our experts continue to study the explosion and our goal is to find answers and technologies that ultimately make mining safer.’’

Virginia-based Massey 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 Massey’s operations June 1.

The report is the first of several that are expected. State and federal investigators are pursuing their own investigations, while federal prosecutors conduct a criminal investigation.

Roosevelt Lynch left the family briefing early with tears in his eyes. His father, William Roosevelt Lynch, died in the explosion. Lynch said he wanted time to digest the report, but thought investigators “did a pretty good job. I’m satisfied.’’

“I’m a coal miner,’’ he said. “I know what goes on.’’

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 the governor at the time, Joe Manchin, to study the 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, but the report said regulators did not properly police the mine.

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.

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