Regulators say mine skirted safety rules

The owner of the West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 men last year kept two sets of books on safety conditions, an accurate one for itself and a sanitized one for the government, federal regulators said Wednesday.

Managers at Massey Energy pressured workers at the Upper Big Branch mine to omit safety problems from the official set of reports, said Mine Safety and Health Administration official Kevin Stricklin. Workers told investigators that the company wanted to avoid scrutiny from inspectors and keep coal production running smoothly.

Massey was purchased by rival Alpha Natural Resources earlier this month, and the new owner said it is looking into the allegations.

Even before the April 5, 2010, explosion that was the nation’s deadliest coal-field disaster in four decides, Massey had a poor safety record and a reputation for putting coal profits first. The mine was cited for 600 violations in less than a year and a half before the blast.

In its previous briefings, MSHA blamed the explosion on naturally occurring methane gas and coal dust. It said poorly maintained cutting machinery sparked the blast and a malfunctioning water sprayer allowed a flare-up to become an inferno.

“Managers were aware that chronic hazardous conditions were not recorded,” Stricklin said. Testimony from some of the 266 people MSHA interviewed “indicated that management pressured examiners to not record hazards” at Upper Big Branch.

MSHA has referred the matter to federal prosecutors, who had no comment on the findings Wednesday.

The explosion is already under criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

So far, one Massey employee has been indicted. Security chief Hughie Stover was charged with lying to the FBI and MSHA and obstructing justice by ordering thousands of pages of documents thrown out.

Eighteen former Massey officials have refused to testify in the investigation, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. That includes chief executive Don Blankenship, who has all but vanished since retiring in December. He did not immediately respond to an e-mail Wednesday.

Massey has argued that the explosion was caused by a huge and unexpected rush of natural gas from a crack in the mine floor, but Stricklin dismissed that theory.

“We’re sure we’re right,” he said. “This is our conclusion. It’s not going to change.”

An independent investigation commissioned by then-West Virginia governor Joe Manchin (D) reached similar conclusions last month. That report accused Massey of allowing highly explosive coal dust and methane gas to accumulate.

— Associated Press

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