Neglect Accusations Spur Defense Over Mine Disaster

It's been a rough week for the 29 families who lost loved ones in last April's coal mine disaster in West Virginia. Federal investigators briefed them on the likely cause, which basically boiled down to this: Neglect caused the explosion, which could have been easily prevented. But the mine's owner, Massey Energy, has its own theory.

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It has been a rough week for the 29 families who lost loved ones in last April's coal mine disaster in West Virginia. Federal investigators described what likely happened and why in a private four-hour briefing on Tuesday. Mine owner Massey Energy will provide its own briefing for the families next week.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports on the dueling narratives that the victims' families are trying to sort out.

HOWARD BERKES: Remember that both mine owner Massey Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, have strong self-interest in how this investigation turns out. Both could be culpable.

MSHA briefed the families of the victims last week.

Mr. GENE JONES (Electrical Engineer): My first thought when I saw that was, like, wow, how could anyone miss that? Who was doing the job?

BERKES: Gene Jones is an electrical engineer whose brother Dean was a Massey Energy section boss when he died inside the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Mr. JONES: Was MSHA doing their job? Was Massey doing their job? Who's actually responsible for that?

BERKES: The mine safety agency detailed a litany of maintenance and safety system failures the day Upper Big Branch erupted, including too much explosive coal dust and worn bits causing excessive sparks on a cutting machine called a shearer, which also had broken and missing water sprayers. The machines in the mine were not in compliance, MSHA said. The explosion and deaths were preventable.

Mr. JONES: It's like production before safety to me. It's like they didn't have the time to do anything but get the coal out of the mines.

BERKES: That's also based on what Jones was told by his brother and other miners.

Mr. JONES: And you wonder where MSHA or anybody was at on the inspections. I mean, how can anyone miss something like that? Sounds like to me they have no authority other than to give you citations, and to me they ought to be able to close the mines completely.

BERKES: This is how coal mine safety Chief Kevin Stricklin answered the where was MSHA question at a teleconference Wednesday with reporters:

Mr. KEVIN STRICKLIN (Chief, Mine Safety and Health Administration): That's something that we'll look into, Howard. We have an internal review that's separate to this investigation. But, I mean, when I look at the numbers, we've issued more orders at this particular mine than any mine in the country. In addition, the mining environment changes dramatically in one shift.

BERKES: Those orders temporarily closed sections of the mine considered too dangerous to operate until problems were fixed. But MSHA and its parent agency, the Labor Department, failed to use its toughest enforcement tools. These are reserved for mines with repeated and persistent violations, like Upper Big Branch, and could put mines under federal court supervision.

Dean Jones's sister Judy, a Charleston physician, is more troubled by the failures blamed on Massey Energy.

Dr. JUDY JONES PETERSEN (General Practitioner): And nobody understands the cruelty of losing this wonderful life out of this family when it was a senseless loss. It was a completely preventable accident.

BERKES: Massey Energy won't discuss its theory about the explosion until it meets with Upper Big Branch families next week. But general counsel Shane Harvey dismisses MSHA's findings.

Mr. SHANE HARVEY (General Counsel, Massey Energy): We don't currently believe that there were issues with the bits or the sprays on the shearer that contributed to the explosion. Second, we don't believe that coal dust played a meaningful role in the explosion. What we believe at this time was that the mine exploded due to a sudden infusion of high levels of natural gas.

BERKES: Reporters refer to this as Massey's Act of God theory because it places blame on natural forces that were seemingly uncontrollable. MSHA's experts say the evidence completely rules out a gas infusion, but even if that caused the blast, it was also manageable because it's a known phenomenon at Upper Big Branch and the agency and MSHA discussed ways to address it four years ago.

Gene Jones shares his sister's frustration about these dueling narratives.

Mr. JONES: Part of it is understanding it. There's no logic here, because it should never have happened. That's the hard part. It's obvious that it's preventable. And I shouldn't be sitting here today talking to you because of that.

BERKES: Gene Jones and Judy Jones-Peterson say they'll attend Massey Energy's family briefing next week. It's close to what would have been their brother Dean's 51st birthday.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.

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