BEAVER -- Federal regulators on Tuesday blamed the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster on "a workplace culture that valued production over safety," and prosecutors said a record $200 million settlement could set the stage for broad industry reforms.
Outlining flagrant safety violations and a practice of trying to cover up major hazards, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited mine operator Performance Coal Co. with 369 violations -- including 12 that directly contributed to the disaster -- and levied more than $10.8 million in fines
Both the fines and the settlement are by far the largest ever in a case over worker safety in the mining industry.
"We think this is historic," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, whose office announced the settlement just hours before MSHA was set to issue its long-awaited Upper Big Branch investigation report.
In that massive, 5-inch-thick report, MSHA concluded that the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners was "entirely preventable" and could have been avoided if Performance and its then-parent company, Massey Energy, had followed long-standing and well-known safety standards.
"Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners' lives at risk," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health and chief of MSHA.
After a 20-month probe, MSHA's investigation team found that the disaster was caused in part by the company's "unwarrantable failure" to follow federal rules governing mine ventilation, roof control, and the cleanup of highly explosive coal dust.
Other contributory citations alleged a "reckless disregard" for requirements to perform periodic safety examinations and fix the problems identified, a systematic effort to warn underground workers of impending inspections and intimidate miners so they wouldn't complain about hazardous conditions.
"Massey routinely ignored obvious safety hazards and let conditions develop that allowed a small methane ignition to propagate into a massive coal dust explosion," the MSHA report said. "The tragic deaths of 29 miners and serious injuries to two others at Upper Big Branch were entirely preventable."
MSHA categorized 12 of Massey's contributing violations as deserving "flagrant" penalties of up to $220,000 each. Four of those related to failing to properly conduct required pre-shift, on-shift and weekly safety examinations of the sprawling Raleigh County mine. MSHA said company representatives did not examine all areas of the mine, ignored clear hazards, did not take steps to fix problems, and in many cases did not use methane detectors needed to pick up explosive levels of gas.
MSHA also issued 357 violations to Massey that were not categorized as having contributed to the disaster. Eleven of those violations were cited as deserving flagrant penalties.
MSHA also cited a Massey contractor, David Stanley Consulting LLC, with two contributory violations. The contractor provided employees who performed safety examinations at Upper Big Branch, and MSHA alleged those examinations were not properly conducted.
In the deal worked out by Goodwin, Alpha Natural Resources -- which bought Massey in June -- has agreed to pay $10.8 million to resolve civil penalties related to Upper Big Branch, as part of paying off $35 million in fines pending from former Massey operations. The fines are part of a larger, $209.5 million settlement Goodwin announced hours before the release of the MSHA report.
MSHA officials said the previous largest penalty in any mining case was $2.3 million for Magma Copper, related to a March 1993 machinery accident that killed four workers at a copper operation in Arizona.
Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's coal administrator, said that he focuses not on the monetary penalties, but on finding out what happened and coming up with ways to prevent another disaster.
"I feel uncomfortable standing up in front of the families talking about the money, because money doesn't bring anybody back," Stricklin told reporters in an afternoon press conference. "But this is what we're mandated by law to do and we did."
Main and Stricklin briefed reporters on their investigation findings during a mid-afternoon press conference held at MSHA's training academy outside Beckley, where agency investigators have been based for months and conducted most of the closed-door witness interviews used as key evidence in the probe.
Main's boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, attended an earlier MSHA briefing for families of the disaster victims. Solis spoke briefly at the agency's press conference, but left without taking questions from reporters.
The MSHA report largely mirrors previously released findings by a team led by independent investigator Davitt McAteer and a report from United Mine Workers safety experts. And in some ways, the formal MSHA report is just elaborating on the agency's previous public statements about its preliminary findings, outlined in detail at a public briefing in late June.
All three investigations agree 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. The spark grew out of control because water sprays meant to control it weren't working, and the blast erupted into a huge explosion when it hit large amounts of coal dust Massey had not cleaned from underground tunnels.
MSHA investigators also focused their report on a wealth of evidence that Massey covered up safety conditions at Upper Big Branch, by keeping hazards out of official record, warning workers underground of impending inspections, and intimidating miners to keep them from reporting safety concerns to the government.
But MSHA investigators offered a somewhat different conclusion as to the source of the methane involved in the initial ignition.
The McAteer team said the methane came from the mined-out "gob" area behind the longwall machine, while MSHA concluded it came from a gas reservoir located along geological faults that were the likely source of methane in previous incidents at the mine in 1997, 2003 and 2004.
MSHA investigators believe small amounts of methane migrated from the mine floor and onto the longwall cutting tool, or shearer, from the longwall's roof supports, or shields. Agency officials noted Massey did not follow up on MSHA recommendations for dealing with methane leaks from the mine floor, but MSHA has also been unable to explain its own failure to ensure the company acted.
MSHA investigators believe that Massey did not follow its agency-approved ventilation and roof control plans, short-circuiting fresh-air flow deep in the mine, contributing to the methane buildup and ignition.
Tuesday's briefings were scheduled on the 104th anniversary of Monongah, the worst coal-mining disaster in U.S. history, but it's not clear if MSHA officials were looking for any symbolism when they did so.
Main said that despite the wide-ranging and deadly safety problems his investigators found at Upper Big Branch, he would not compare conditions there to those at Monongah.
"The findings of our investigation found that the practices and conditions at this mine were what led to the deaths of these 29 miners," Main said. "If you go back to the early 20th Century, we had a lot more safety problems."
That said, Main added, "This was a coal-dust explosion that shouldn't have happened."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.