Federal Probe: Massey Kept Fake Safety Records

The Mine Safety and Health Administration releases preliminary findings in the federal investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia Wednesday. Families of the victims were briefed privately Tuesday night.

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There are new details still coming out about that deadly explosion at the Big Branch Coal Mine in West Virginia, 15 months after the accident. Last night, the Mine Safety and Health Administration told families of victims that the owner of the mine kept two sets of books.�One set was used internally, and listed safety hazards. The other, presented to federal mine inspectors, did not.�From Beckley, West Virginia, NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: The briefing was private for the 29 families who lost loved ones last year.�The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is still investigating the massive explosion that ripped through Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine. And the agency says it'll be autumn before a final report is ready.�But some of those listening to the update say they've heard enough, even as they learn new bits of information.

Ms. BOBBIE PAULEY: Just to have someone to lay it out for you like that, to know that these 29 men died for no reason, that they should be here right now with us, that we should not be going through this.

BERKES: Bobbie Pauley's thoughts and voice fade to quiet tears.�She was also an Upper Big Branch miner and she lost Boone Payne, her future husband, in the explosion. Pauley was not surprised to hear about two sets of records for the mine, with the official status reports for MSHA, the federal mine safety agency, failing to disclose safety problems.

Ms. PAULEY: And I knew those, those reports existed. And I knew that the books that MSHA had access too weren't always correct.�That was common knowledge at the mine.

BERKES: Massey Energy is now owned by Alpha Natural Resources. And before the private family briefing last night, a spokesman said the company could not comment on any new information until it's disclosed during a public briefing scheduled this morning.�Investigators also laid out for the families, the precise path the fiery part of the explosion took.

Ms. PAULEY: You know, and you sit and wonder what these guys saw.�You know, what was the last thing they saw.�A big ball of fire coming at them.�Did he have time to think about this family? Did he have time to think about, you know, how much I loved him?�I mean, just things like that just run through your mind that really brings the pain back. It just brings the pain back for you.

BERKES: And frustration and anger.�Clay Mullins lost his brother Rex at Upper Big Branch. He's also a coal miner and he understands the technical information investigators presented, which defies Massey's explanation for the blast.�

The company blames a sudden and natural inundation of gas from a crack in the mine floor. But that theory is contradicted by gas measurements reported by investigators last night. Mullins says its time for federal criminal indictments of mine and company managers.

Mr. CLAY MULLINS (Miner): And that'll give me peace of mind.�It's not going to bring my brother back or any of these 28 other men.�But that'll give me peace of mind, because I know that they're willing to sacrifice 29 lives for the production of coal.

BERKES: A federal criminal investigation continues. The only charges so far do not relate directly to the explosion. Massey has insisted all along that it did not put production before safety.�

Gene Jones left the briefing more frustrated than ever, especially by the failure of Congress to enact tougher mine safety laws.�Gene's brother Dean, an identical twin, died in the disaster and Gene vows, now, to go to Washington to face every member of Congress he can.

Mr. GENE JONES: You can't wait. If you continue to wait it's going to happen again, just like it just did on April the 5th, 2010. And it's time to do something.�If that's what it takes for me to go do that I've got the courage to do it. I'm just going to take a deep breath and go talk to them and try to speak out the best I can and be honest about it. And make them listen to me.

BERKES: Jones spoke clutching his first step, an angry and sad letter to a U.S. senator about losing a brother so close the two had their own secret language as kids.�Only one voice remains.�Jones says its time to use it to speak out for his brother.�

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.

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