© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR NEWS INVESTIGATION: Coverage of mine safety in the U.S. after an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 workers.

In Final Report, Coal Mine Company Calls Deadly Blast 'A Natural Disaster'

Two days after being absorbed in a merger, Massey Energy released its final report on the explosion that killed 29 mine workers at its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia last year.

And the findings are consistent with what Massey has been saying about the blast for the last year: it was a "natural disaster" and the company's operation of the mine is not at fault.

Massey's conclusions sharply contradict the report two weeks ago issued by an independent team of investigators appointed last year by Joe Manchin, the governor of West Virginia at the time.

That report blamed "profoundly reckless" management of the mine for poor underground ventilation, malfunctioning mining equipment, excessive explosive coal dust and multiple safety systems failures that kept a small methane ignition from erupting into a series of massive explosions.

That conclusion also fits the working theory of investigators at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), who are scheduled to issue a preliminary summary of its findings on June 29.

But the Massey report calls the MSHA investigation "deeply flawed" and determined "to find evidence in support of its claim that [the company] caused the accident."

MSHA spokesman Amy Louviere responded with this statement: "We are currently reviewing the findings that appear in Massey's report released this morning."

Massey claims MSHA "ignored compelling evidence of a natural disaster and, instead, focused single-mindedly on any factors that were conceivably within [the company's] control."

Massey bases its conclusions on evidence gathered and analyzed by its own team of technical experts, who conducted their own investigation underground.

And each conclusion supports a common thread: Massey is not to blame. Natural forces are at fault.

Massey's experts say gas readings taken after the blast support their finding that natural gas (which consists mostly of methane) rushed into the mine just before the explosion on the afternoon of April 5, 2010. There was no excessive coal dust, the report says, to feed the explosion and send it coursing more than two miles underground.

"The ignition source may never be determined," Massey says, but the explosion was sparked "certainly not as the result of faulty shearer maintenance." The shearer is the massive cutting tool on the longwall mining machine and MSHA and the independent investigative team have said worn bits created excessive sparking and malfunctioning water sprayers failed to control those sparks and a small methane gas ignition.

Massey insists that "the mine's underground ventilation system provided significantly more fresh air than required by law and there is no evidence that ventilation contributed to the explosion."

MSHA and the independent investigative team, and documents in the public record, show serious problems with the mine's ventilation system in the months before the blast. Massey miners also testified that sections of the mine frequently lacked enough air to sweep away explosive coal dust and methane gas. The independent report said air was flowing in the wrong direction, which could carry methane gas toward the sparking shearer, the day of the blast.

Massey also attacks the MSHA investigation as "predicated, in part, upon secrecy, protecting its own self-interest, witness intimidation, obstruction of [the company's] investigators, and retaliatory citations."

The report does not specifically address the conclusions of the independent investigative team, which was led by former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer. In a cover letter, former Massey board chairman Bobby Inman says "Massey Energy officials have significant disagreements with Mr. McAteer's report" and promises a critique sometime in the next two weeks.

Inman also says in the letter that the report was ready for release several weeks ago but was held back at the "request from Alpha and some of Massey's large shareholders to minimize any publicity that could possibly detract from focus on the impending Shareholder votes" on this week's merger. (See update below.)

Massey makes a recommendation that even some of its critics may endorse. The company calls for independent and public investigations of mine disasters. Members of Congress, the United Mine Workers union, McAteer and families of the 29 victims of the Upper Big Branch disaster have criticized MSHA's decision not to conduct an open investigation.

A federal criminal investigation continues and two low-level Massey managers have been charged so far but not for crimes that relate directly to the explosion.

At least 13 wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against Massey Energy by families of the victims. Eight other families accepted cash settlements, according to a Massey financial statement, and four survivors of the explosion have filed suits based on personal injuries or emotional distress.

Several large institutional shareholders have lawsuits pending against former Massey executives and board members for allegedly failing to manage the company safely and causing declines in the value of their investments.

Update at 3:46 p.m. ET. Alpha Says It Will Conduct Its Own Review:

In a statement, Alpha Natural Resources says it "did not commission or authorize the release of the report, and was not given the opportunity to review" it.

The statement indicates Alpha does not approve of the report's release or its conclusions.

Alpha told Massey not to release a report "before Alpha had an opportunity to fully understand and assess the situation.

The statement says Alpha will conduct its own review of "the events at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine" and will cooperate with investigators.

Massey's assertion that the blast was a "natural disaster" does not absolve the company of responsibility. Massive infusions of natural gas have been reported before at the mine and Massey officials met with federal regulators about the problem. MSHA recommended a series of steps to address that threat but neither MSHA nor Massey has produced evidence that either did anything in response.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
Related Content