Federal regulators ‘could have prevented’ Upper Big Branch, W. Va. mine disaster, report concludes

at 06:12 PM ET, 03/23/2012

On April 5, 2010, a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia killed 29 men. Up until now, responsibility for the deaths has fallen largely on the then-owners of the mine, Massey Energy, for violating safety standards.

Yet a scathing new independent review, reported late Friday afternoon, concludes that federal regulators at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) “could have prevented” the disaster — but didn’t.

(Jeff Gentner/AP)
The report, written by a independent panel assembled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was first reported by Ken Ward, a journalist at The Charleston Gazette. It says, among other things, that mining regulators failed to spot “a number of enforcement deficiencies” at the Upper Big Branch mine before the blast. (Indeed, an earlier report noted that Massey had been cited 515 times for safety violations in 2009.) “[I]f MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act,” this latest report reads, “it would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented — the [Upper Big Branch] explosion.”

NPR’S Howard Berkes has a copy of the new report, which concludes that Massey Energy “caused the explosion,” initially triggered by an ignition of methane gas. But federal regulators failed to complete several enforcement inspections that could have prevented the explosion from getting out of hand. For instance, the report says, MSHA failed spot and address accumulations of explosive coal dust that provided the fuel for a massive explosion.

Not only that, but the review found “a very similar constellation of shortcomings” in MSHA’s review of five other mining disasters, including a 2006 fire at Massey’s Aracoma mine in West Virginia, and two mining collapses in 2007 at Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine.

Berkes has a more complete rundown of the report here.

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