BEAVER, W.Va. -- Massey Energy covered up safety hazards at its Upper Big Branch Mine by pressuring mine foremen and safety examiners not to record methane spikes and inoperable explosion-prevention equipment in official records examined by government inspectors, federal authorities said Wednesday.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials said Massey management recorded such hazards in its internal production reports, but routinely omitted safety problems from mine safety reports required by federal law.
MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary was essentially keeping "two sets of books" -- a move that Stricklin said could eventually prompt criminal charges for falsifying safety records, a felony.
"If a coal mine wants to keep two sets of books, that's their business," Stricklin said during a much-anticipated MSHA briefing at the national mine safety academy outside Beckley.
"They can keep five sets of books if they want," Stricklin said. "But they're required to record the hazards in the official set of books."
Using a computer slideshow, Stricklin cited three examples of production records that indicated safety problems had slowed down coal operations on particular days, and compared them to official mine examination reports that indicated mine foremen had found no hazards.
"I think that makes it obvious that they [Massey officials] were trying to hide something," said Shirley Whitt, whose brother, Boone Payne, died at Upper Big Branch. "Why else would you do that?"
The revelation about record books was the largest new disclosure made by Stricklin in an hour-long briefing Wednesday morning. On Tuesday night, MSHA officials met privately with families of the 29 miners who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch in Raleigh County.
MSHA officials echoed their previous conclusions -- and those of special investigator Davitt McAteer -- that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that "transitioned into a massive coal-dust explosion" because of Massey's poor safety practices. The ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone on the longwall machine's shearer, MSHA officials said.
"This explosion could and should have been prevented by the mine operator," MSHA said in a 66-page slide show summarizing the agency's findings to date.
As they have before, MSHA officials flatly rejected arguments by former Massey CEO Don Blankenship and former company board chairman Bobby Inman that the deaths were the result of a "natural disaster" involving an uncontrollable inundation of massive amounts of natural gas into the mine.
MSHA investigators believe that they've found clear evidence that a coal-dust buildup underground sent the explosion rocketing in all directions, greatly increasing the damage and deaths. And, government officials say their tests of methane detectors in use at the time of the blast show no signs of the massive quantities of methane Massey officials argue were at work.
In a statement issued Wednesday, a spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey effective June 1, again declined to say what it believes caused the disaster.
"We welcome any additional information that will help reconstruct what happened at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine," said Alpha spokesman Ted Pile. "But we also ask for time to conduct our own assessment of all the findings published to date as well as proprietary or confidential information we didn't have access to prior to the acquisition of Massey."
MSHA officials told the miners' families they have completed a more than 200-page draft report that they hope to have finalized by sometime this fall. Among other things, investigators are still making final determinations about which of the "multitude" of violations they discovered would be classified as having "contributed" to the deaths.
The massive investigation of the worst U.S. mining disaster in nearly 40 years has involved 300 witness interviews, 84,000 pages of documents, nearly 1,000 separate maps, 23,000 photographs and 1,060 pieces of physical evidence, officials said.
MSHA investigators criticized Massey for "chronic ventilation problems" at Upper Big Branch, saying the company engineered the mine in an "ad hoc" fashion, without long-term planning and by repeated "trial and error" efforts to provide adequate fresh-air to working sections.
Agency officials also blasted the routine use at the mine of ventilation doors that can be left open and are subject to damage and leakage that can short-circuit fresh-air flow underground. MSHA also repeated previous findings that water sprays meant to control dust and ignitions were missing or inoperable, and often clogged with sediment from improperly filtered river water.
Federal investigators found inadequate use by Massey of "rock dust," or crushed limestone, which controls the buildup of explosive coal dust underground. In one case, MSHA said, one end of the longwall section had never been rock-dusted since the longwall machine started work in the fall of 2009. In other instance, MSHA said, roof conditions and mine floor buckling made it impossible to use a mechanized rock-duster in portions of the Upper Big Branch tunnels.
Investigators reported that miners at Upper Big Branch were intimidated into not voicing safety concerns, and that local mine managers were threatened with losing their jobs if they ever allowed a safety problem to slow down coal production.
MSHA officials said mine foremen at Upper Big Branch routinely did not record key methane gas and other readings. They noted that one company safety examiner who was supposed to check for methane the day of the explosion had turned off his methane monitor in mid-March and not turned it back on again until about four hours after the April 5 explosion.
Stricklin said Wednesday MSHA has not been able to find any evidence that Massey took recommended safety precautions following previous methane problems in 1997, 2003 and 2004 at Upper Big Branch. But, Stricklin conceded, there is also no record that MSHA pushed the company to do so.
Staff writer Gary A. Harki contributed to this report.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.