Massey coal responsible for 29 miner deaths says independent report

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An independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster has concluded that Massey Energy's refusal to carry out basic safety measures and "a corporate culture that put coal production ahead of protecting workers" caused the deaths of 29 miners in last April's massive explosion.

"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," according to the report released this morning. "The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices."

The report was written by an independent team headed by former federal mine administrator J. Davitt McAteer, commissioned in 2010 by West Virginia's then-Gov. Joe Manchin to investigate the blast. Federal and state mine agencies have yet to issue two other reports that are in the works.

The McAteer report found that "widespread violations, persistent intimidation of workers and constant battling with regulators can only be accepted where the deviant has become the normal. A great number of deviant practices became normalized at the Upper Big Branch Mine."

Before releasing the findings at a press conference today McAteer held a closed-door briefing for families of the miners who died, providing them with copies of the report.

Autopsies of the men killed revealed that 17 of the 24 whose lungs could be examined showed they were suffering from black lung disease, a deadly disease that U.S. authorities promised to eradicate more than 40 years ago.

The rate for the disease at the Upper Big Branch Mine was 20 times higher than the average for all underground coal miners, according to the report. Some with the disease were as young as 25 and five were new to the underground mining profession.

"The disaster at Upper Big Branch was man-made and could have been prevented," the report concluded.

Massey Energy officials have said the explosion was a "natural disaster" beyond the company's control. Reactions from company officials, regulatory agencies and state lawmakers are expected later today when they have all had a chance to digest the report.

The document outlines many previously undisclosed violations by the company:

A key Massey foreman, for example, did not perform required mine safety tests the day of the explosion - and that type of behavior was widespread practice at the mine.

The report reveals for the first time that the flow of fresh air in the mine was reversed the day of the explosion. Proper ventilation pushes methane and coal dust out of the mine. Air flowing the wrong way helped set the stage for the disaster.

Broken water pumps allowed water to rise, squeezing out needed air supplies.

The blast erupted when the longwall machine's shearer cut into a piece of sandstone. The resulting spark ignited a pocket of methane that had seeped into the mined-out-area, behind the mining machine.

Illegal levels of coal dust provided fuel that sent the blast rocketing in multiple directions through two miles of tunnels.

The report noted that the company had carried out required rock dusting only 16 percent of the time. This allowed the coal dust to fuel the initial spark into an uncontrollable blast. The spark also combined with a build up of gas resulting from an un-maintained ventilation system. Water sprays that could normally put out a small spark unfed by built up gases and coal dust were not available because they were not in working order, as required.

The company did not document safety hazards because it was not attending to them.

Some of the findings show overt criminal neglect.

A foreman frequently conducted "methane safety checks" with the methane detector turned off, according to testimony from miners.

The report found that the cozy relationship between big corporations and lawmakers was also a major problem, often making it more difficult for regulators to do their job.

"The reality that powerful industries and their leaders cast long shadows over the state's government is not unique to West Virginia or the coal industry...but for those workers whose lives hang in the balance a commitment must be made to ensure that the public interest - the safety of the miners - is the first and foremost consideration."

Photo: At an April 2010 memorial vigil, people from the coal mining towns along the Coal River gather in Naoma, W.Va., for 29 miners who died in the explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine. Amy Sancetta/AP

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