Justice Dept. probing Upper Big Branch mine explosion

By Jerry Markon and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 1, 2010; A04

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation of the West Virginia coal mine explosion that killed 29 people, and FBI agents have interviewed current and former employees of the mine's owner, law enforcement sources said Friday.

The probe, which is at least a week old, is focused on the deadly April 5 blast and the circumstances surrounding it, the sources said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

The Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va., is owned by Massey Energy Co. It had been cited for numerous safety violations, including a dozen in the weeks before the explosion for problems ventilating the mine and preventing a buildup of deadly methane.

NPR News first reported on the investigation Friday.

Massey officials have said that they do not know what triggered the explosion. In a statement, the company said it had no knowledge of criminal wrongdoing and is cooperating with multiple investigations of the blast.

"It is not uncommon that an accident of the size and scope of UBB would lead to a comprehensive investigation by relevant law enforcement agencies," the statement said. "Massey does not and will not tolerate any improper or illegal conduct and will respond aggressively as circumstances warrant."

But mine safety experts said the federal probe is unusual. "It's very rare for the FBI to be involved in an accident investigation, especially this early in the process,'' said Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and former top Mine Safety and Health Administration official.

The Justice Department did not launch a criminal probe after the deadly 2006 mine blast in Sago, W.Va. It settled with a Massey subsidiary after the death of two West Virginia coal miners in a January 2006 fire; the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges and paid $2.5 million in criminal fines.

Even if the FBI finds evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it might be difficult to bring a substantial punishment, safety experts said. Under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, the only felony offense would be if mine records were falsified.

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