Probe targets foremen in 2010 W.Va. mine disaster

February 23, 2012 - 3:55 PM

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia mine safety officials issued 253 violations in their investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster and targeted at least two foremen, saying their failures may have exacerbated the unsafe conditions underground before the explosion that killed 29 men.

The violations are included in a report released Thursday by the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. It's the fourth and final report on the nation's worst coal mining disaster in four decades at Massey Energy's mine near Montcoal.

The report comes the day after federal prosecutors charged the mine's former superintendent with fraud and signaled they are going after other Massey employees, likely higher up the management ladder.

The state's conclusions about the cause of the explosion largely mirror those of previous reports: The machine cutting through sandstone to reach the coal created the heat or spark that methane needed to ignite. Broken water sprayers then failed to stop the fireball from turning into a much more powerful series of explosions fueled by coal dust.

The report said foremen Ricky J. Foster and Terry W. Moore repeatedly failed to clean conveyor belts and apply rock dust to certain areas in the mine from December 2009 until the explosion on April 5, 2010. Mine operators use pulverized limestone to cover and neutralize highly explosive coal dust.

Contact information for the foremen or their attorneys was not immediately available.

State mine safety director C.A. Phillips said a third employee has also been targeted for individual violations, but he would not identify that person. By law, each of the three can be fined no more than $250.

Regulators have moved to decertify one of the miners, but Phillips would not say which.

Nor could his staff immediately tally up the proposed fines against Massey, now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources. However, the violations include 22 "special assessments," which could result in fines of up to $10,000 apiece, and one automatic $100,000 penalty for failing to report the explosion within 15 minutes.

One of the "most disturbing facts" state investigators said they learned about rock-dusting practices at Upper Big Branch was the failure to treat one side of the longwall mining machine during the eight months it operated. Some 5,400 feet of the 6,700-foot-long coal panel was mined between September 2009 and April 2010 "without any record of rock dust being applied," the report said.

Both foremen signed safety inspection logs to indicate they were aware of coal dust accumulation and the need for rock dusting, the report said, but there is no record suggesting either fixed the problems. The log books also had "lack of clarity and full disclosure" about the extent of the hazards underground.

More detail could have helped workers on subsequent shifts protect themselves, the report said.

"Individuals involved in the day-to-day decision making at the mine must be held accountable regardless of their title," the report concluded. "The mine foreman is the highest-ranking official that current state law addresses."

Neither Foster nor Moore cooperated with investigations by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the United Mine Workers. They are listed among 18 Massey executives and mine managers who invoked their right to avoid self-incrimination and refused to testify.

The superintendent charged Wednesday did the same.

Gary May, 43, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the federal government, accused of disabling a methane monitor on a mining machine and falsifying safety records. Prosecutors said May also manipulated the mine's ventilation system during inspections to fool safety officials about air flow. He could get up to five years in prison if convicted.

May is the highest-ranking company official charged so far in connection with the blast.

The other, former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, will be sentenced next week for lying to investigators and trying to destroy documents. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin is urging a federal judge to make an example of Stover by giving him the maximum — 25 years in prison.

The charges against May were contained in a federal information, a document that typically signals a defendant's cooperation with prosecutors. May has declined comment.

Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex died in the mine, said he wants to see more prosecutions.

"They need to go all the way to the top," he said — as high as former CEO Don Blankenship, who was known for micromanaging his mines and required managers to fax him production reports.

"He run them from behind his desk, wherever he was at," Mullins said. "He knew exactly what was going on at that mine, as well as all the other top officials did."

Jack Bowden, who lost his son-in-law Steve "Smiley" Harrah in the disaster, called the criminal charges against May good news. He, too, is eager to see where else prosecutors look.

"I hope he goes up the ladder and I hope he goes down the ladder," he said.

"I'll tell ya, guys, it was murder," Bowden added. "... Don Blankenship should be held accountable for it."

Phillips said the state has not had access to all the evidence that MSHA and the U.S. Department of Justice have gathered, so it has been unable to charge the superintendent under state laws. However, he said his office has requested that evidence and will file charges against May if they're warranted.

State investigators wanted to speak to the 18 people who refused to testify as much as anyone else, Phillips added.

Reports about the explosion have already been released by MSHA, the United Mine Workers of America and an independent panel appointed by the former governor.