West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPB) reports tonight that the first final report on the cause of last year's Upper Big Branch mine explosion will be released Thursday in Beckley, West Virginia.
The blast on April 5, 2010, killed 29 Massey Energy mineworkers and injured two others. Multiple civil and criminal investigations are underway but the first group to produce a final report will be an independent team appointed by former W. Va. Governor Joe Manchin and led by former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, a veteran of other mine disaster investigations.
McAteer tells WVPB that the report will address the preliminary and dramatically different conclusions about the cause of the explosion already released by mine owner Massey Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
Massey has blamed the tragedy on a sudden infusion of natural or methane gas, which presumably overwhelmed safety systems. MSHA has said a small methane ignition erupted into a fiery and concussive explosion due to malfunctioning safety systems, poorly maintained mining equipment and excessive coal dust throughout the mine.
"We believe we understand what went on," McAteer tells NPR. He adds that the report reviews the roles of the mining company and state and federal regulators in the events that preceded the explosion. McAteer has been looking at possible regulatory failures. An internal Labor Department investigation is considering that, as well.
McAteer says his report also covers events following the explosion. MSHA released 1,700 pages of transcripts last week that detail problems with the search and rescue effort after the blast. And NPR reported last month delays in the emergency response to the incident.
In November, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship promised a full company report in a matter of weeks. Blankenship suddenly retired in December and the company has said nothing about a company report since. Massey is the target of a takeover by coal industry competitor Alpha Natural Resources. The shareholders of both companies will vote on the merger June 1.
MSHA plans to release its preliminary findings in a private meeting with families of the victims of the disaster on June 28, which will be followed by a public meeting the next day.
McAteer also plans a private briefing for victims' families Thursday morning before meeting with reporters that afternoon.