CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Six weeks after the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up, someone slipped some papers under Bob Hardman's door at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's district office in Mount Hope.
MSHA's Southern West Virginia district manager found two memos, detailing serious methane leaks in 2003 and 2004 at the Massey Energy mine where 29 workers had just been killed in a massive explosion.
The memos -- both six years old -- detailed how the Upper Big Branch Mine's floor was a likely source of explosive gas, and gave clear recommendations on what Massey should do to avoid a potentially deadly methane blast. Massey never implemented those recommendations, and MSHA officials admit they never made sure the company took action.
"I've not found any information to indicate that it was addressed in any way," Hardman told Upper Big Branch investigators, according to an interview transcript that MSHA has refused to formally make public.
Now, after a 20-month probe, a team of MSHA investigators has concluded that the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years was likely ignited through exactly the mechanism warned of in the memos Hardman found slipped under his door.
MSHA investigators concluded "a small amount of methane, likely liberated from the mine floor" in the same area of underground rock fractures as the earlier gas "outbursts."
At the same time, MSHA continues to refuse to explain how and why it didn't do something that might have prevented the April 2010 explosion.
Joe Main, the Obama administration's assistant labor secretary in charge of MSHA, said the issue is among those about agency performance that are being examined by an MSHA interview review team that has not yet been completed its work.
During a press conference Tuesday, Main also tried to deflect any blame from MSHA back toward Massey Energy, which owned and operated the Raleigh County mine.
"One of the things we can't miss here is the mine operator had the information that was available on how to address the problem," Main said.
But Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA chief who is conducting an independent review of Upper Big Branch, said Wednesday that federal officials clearly failed to do their jobs.
"When you have this known problem, the failure to address it is a failure of enforcement that is profound," McAteer said in an interview.
In a preliminary report issued in May, McAteer and his team of experts did not specifically identify methane from the mine floor as the likely source of the gas that ignited on April 5, 2010.
The McAteer report listed the failure to take action after the earlier incidents as a failure on the part of both Massey and MSHA. The report said mine operators have a responsibility to deal with such problems.
"The problem, of course, is that not all mine operators are prudent," the McAteer report said. "If MSHA has knowledge, data or evidence that a mine operator does not take his responsibility seriously and does not take all necessary precautions to protect miners' safety, MSHA must step in."
Government and independent investigators have all agreed that most of the deaths at Upper Big Branch occurred because what should have been a small methane ignition turned into a huge coal-dust explosion because Massey did not keep underground tunnels free of highly combustible coal dust.
But in the report made public Tuesday, MSHA officials classified the failure to take steps to control methane leakage from the Upper Big Branch mine floor as a violation that contributed to the disaster.
"The mine has a history of methane incidents on prior longwall panels," the MSHA report said. "These incidents put the operator on notice for methane hazards on the longwall face."
MSHA cited Massey with "moderate negligence," while noting that the company did not implement agency recommendations -- such as drilling de-gasification holes or increasing fresh-air flow to the mine face -- after the earlier methane incidents.
The first prior methane incident reported at Upper Big Branch occurred in January 1997. Stanley "Goose" Stewart, a former Upper Big Branch worker, has testified about poor working conditions at the mine and publicly talked about living through the 1997 methane ignition.
"At that point in time, I really and truly thought I was a dead man," Stewart said of the 1997 incident. In a report on the incident, MSHA said that witnesses reported hearing what they thought was a roof fall, and then a "bright red glow" or an "arcing flash."
The second and third incidents occurred in July 2003 and February 2004, and prompted a much more thorough review by MSHA inspectors and agency technical staff. MSHA officials concluded at the time that a reservoir of natural gas below the Upper Big Branch Mine might easily be released into the active mining operation. They recommended a series of steps to try to prevent such incidents.
Details of the previous methane incidents surfaced in June 2010, when the Gazette obtained the two memos that had been slipped under Hardman's door.
Since then, MSHA has said several times that it had not been able to find any evidence that Massey implemented the recommendations, or that agency officials forced the company to do so -- or even checked to see if they had.
"It doesn't look like we did," Kevin Stricklin, the agency's coal administrator, said in a late June 2011 briefing. "We think that's something we can do better at."
In response to a Gazette Freedom of Information Act request, MSHA released 149 pages of documents about the 2003 and 2004 incidents, mostly standard inspection reports and "control orders" to secure the site pending agency investigations. MSHA also withheld 272 other pages of records, alleging that their release could interfere with enforcement proceedings or "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Also, MSHA this week did not include a transcript of the Upper Big Branch investigation team's interview with Hardman -- which focused in part on the 2003 and 2004 methane incidents -- in the 265 interview transcripts it made public. MSHA said it withheld only those transcripts that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin indicated might, if released, harm his office's ongoing criminal investigation.
The Gazette obtained a copy of the transcript, which details testimony Hardman gave to the Upper Big Branch investigation team May 27, June 4, and June 6, 2010.
Hardman told investigators that he found the methane incident memos slipped under the door of his office on May 21, 2010, and was then given a second copy of the documents the following day by his staff assistant, Mike Dickerson.
According to Hardman, Dickerson told him that MSHA ventilation expert Joe Mackowiak had found the records in what Hardman called "a file 13."
"It was a file that wasn't organized," Hardman said. "I don't know whether it was in a file cabinet or in a box or where they found it, he doesn't say. But they basically had conducted a search in the ventilation department for any documents related to UBB, and they came up with a copy of this 2004 memorandum in those file 13 documents."
Hardman explained that he wasn't MSHA's Southern West Virginia district manager when the 2003 and 2004 incidents had occurred. Hardman moved to the district and took that job in August 2006, after Jesse Cole retired.
Cole retired following the January 2006 Aracoma Alma No.1 Mine fire, which killed two workers and resulted in a major audit that found mine enforcement problems then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler called "deeply disturbing." Hardman retired from MSHA in May 2011.
In his May 27, 2010, interview session, Hardman told investigators if he had been district manager when the methane incidents at Upper Big Branch occurred, he "certainly would have required a plan with elements in it to address this potential of methane outbursts in the floor during longwall mining, without a doubt.
Hardman also told investigators the UBB explosion raised questions about other mines in the area working in the same coal seams, and whether they might have similar mine-floor methane-leakage problems that needed to be addressed.
"Well, I'll tell you what I am going to do, if -- irregardless of whether we find out that that was the cause of this accident or not, I am going -- I'm -- in fact, I have a draft of it," Hardman said. "Right now, I'm going to ask Tech Support to give me a linear analysis on every mine in District 4 that's in the Eagle seam, number one.
"I have a list of those, and I've developed a 'Memorandum of Request,' not only UBB, but all the mines in the Eagle seam," Hardman testified. "I'm going to ask Tech Support to come in and look at each of those mines individually and make recommendations that -- what should be done. And I'm going to get revisions from the operators to address their recommendations. You know, they're the experts in this area, and I'll take it from there."
In a Freedom of Information Act request last December, the Gazette asked MSHA for Hardman's list and his "Memorandum of Request," and copies of any reports or documents generated as a result of his efforts. MSHA responded in February, saying no such records existed.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.