May 19, 2011
Anna Christopher, NPR



Part of Ongoing NPR News Investigation into Mine Safety in America

The first investigative report about last year's coal mine disaster in West Virginia blames a corporate "culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm" for the deaths of 29 Massey Energy mine workers, NPR's Howard Berkes reports. The report was produced by an independent team of investigators appointed by former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and led by Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who has investigated other mine disasters in the state. Full Report Now at:

"Massey exhibited a corporate mentality that placed the drive to produce coal above worker safety" at the company's Upper Big Branch mine, the report concludes. "Many systems created to safeguard miners had to break down in order for an explosion to occur." The panel's report also says, "The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine is proof positive that the [federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA] failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners."

A combination of ineffective ventilation in the mine, faulty safety equipment, excessive coal dust and ignored internal safety checks "created a perfect storm within the Upper Big Branch mine, an accident waiting to happen," according to the report.

Berkes also reports that the independent team found that the miners at Upper Big Branch had black lung disease (or coal workers' pneumoconiosis) in disproportionate numbers, according to analysis of the autopsy report from a pulmonary physician and black lung expert. Only 24 of the 29 bodies had enough lung tissue to be analyzed; of those, 17 of the 24 or 71 percent had black lung. The national prevalence rate for black lung is 3.2 percent. In West Virginia, the rate is 7.6 percent.

McAteer's panel confirmed earlier preliminary findings and news reports about the cause of the disaster, some of which resulted from a yearlong NPR News Investigation. NPR's reports from the past year include the discovery that two officials from Upper Big Branch owner Massey Energy were underground unsupervised for four hours after the blast; Massey workers had disabled a safety monitor in the mine; and the Labor Department's unprecedented action against Massey, seeking its first-ever federal injunction to shut down another Massey-owned mine in Kentucky.