Posted on 30 Jun 2011
Massey Energy, the owner of the West Virginia mine where 29 men were killed in an explosion last year, misled government inspectors by keeping accounts of hazardous conditions out of official record books where inspectors would see them, according to Federal investigators.
Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, described a dual accounting system practiced by Massey before the deadly explosion, in which safety problems and efforts to fix them were recorded in an internal set of books, out of sight of state inspectors, and off the official books that the law required them to keep.
That was among the conclusions of a large team of federal investigators, who spent a year sifting through more than 84,000 pages of documents, interviewing 266 people and examining evidence at the Upper Big Branch mine, where the explosion occurred.
Some of the findings echoed a report issued by an independent team of state investigators this month, which blamed Massey and a culture of impunity for the explosion. But these findings went further, saying that Massey took systematic and premeditated steps to circumvent government inspections.
“If a coal mine wants to keep two sets of books, that’s their own business,” Mr. Stricklin said. “What they have to do is record the hazards associated with the examination in the official record book, and that wasn’t the case here.”
Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, the company that acquired Massey in a merger this month, said that company officials had heard the information for the first time on Wednesday “along with the rest of the public,” and that until the company completed its own investigation it would not be in a position to comment.
In a presentation in Beaver, W. Va., Mr. Stricklin offered a stinging indictment of Massey practices, saying the federal investigation by more than 100 people had been able to rule out the company’s assertion that the explosion on April 5, 2010, happened because of an event beyond its control: a huge inundation of gas.
His findings matched those of the earlier report, conducted by a former federal mine safety chief, Davitt McAteer, which said that coal dust had been allowed to accumulate, spreading what had been a small ignition of methane through the mine and creating the deadliest mine blast in 40 years. “We are further along than this just being our theory,” Mr. Stricklin said. “This is our conclusion.”
It is not unusual for a mine to keep several sets of books to track things like production and safety examinations before and during shifts. But it is against the rules to note problems with safety only on internal books, which are not required to be shown to federal or state inspectors, and leave them off the official books, which are required.
And while mines sometimes resort to shortcuts, noting that all is well when something needs to be fixed, doing so could result in criminal charges, because falsifying records is a felony under federal mining laws, said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky-based lawyer who specializes in coal industry cases.
Mr. Stricklin could not say whether his findings, which will be issued in the form of a formal report this fall, would lead to criminal charges.
Two people have already been indicted in the case this spring, according to Melvin Smith, a spokesman for the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of West Virginia: a foreman, accused of lying on a document and to federal officials, and the former chief of security, accused of lying and concealing documents.
Massey managers, including the former chief executive, Don Blankenship, have not been charged, including 18 executives who refused to be interviewed for the federal investigation, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.
Mr. Stricklin acknowledged that the mining authority knew about the conditions at the mine — in the year before the blast, the mine received more orders to shut down unsafe areas than any other coal mine in the country — and had stopped short of applying the toughest measure of closing it.
But he said officials had not known the detail that surfaced in the so-called production reports, or internal set of record keeping, that officials were given as part of the federal investigation after the explosion. Inspectors had no way of going into the “locked closets” of the company to read these, he said. The blast forced them into public view.
Mr. Stricklin showed scanned copies of pages from the reports side by side in his presentation on Wednesday. The internal report from March 1, 2010, shortly before the accident, noted a problem with water sprayers, while the official report stated flatly “none observed” in the column for hazardous conditions.
Massey managers appeared to have pressured workers to omit dangerous conditions from the official books, Mr. Stricklin said, a finding that echoed
Mr. McAteer’s conclusion that workers who tried to report risks were intimidated.
One fact seemed to buttress that conclusion: In the years leading up to the explosion, the federal mining watchdog received just one phone call on its anonymous safety hot line from a worker in the mine.