Mine Owner, Safety Agency Face Federal Inquiry

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is the subject of a federal criminal investigation following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia three weeks ago. The FBI is also looking into Massey Energy, the owner of the mine.

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West Virginia's mine disaster three weeks ago is now the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

NPR News has learned that the FBI investigation targets the Mine Safety and Health Administration. It also targets Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine.

NPR's Howard Berkes has been covering this story. He's on the line in Beckley, West Virginia. Howard, good morning.

HOWARD BERKES: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What exactly are federal investigators looking into here?

BERKES: There are two things, basically. One, the possible bribery of officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. These are the people responsible for inspecting mines and enforcing federal mining law and regulations. And there, you know, have always been rumors in the coal fields that mine inspectors, mine officials, are taking bribes from mining companies to overlook safety problems. We've heard things like that for decades, but they're rarely proven and they're rarely prosecuted. So this would be a major step if it turns out that such a thing has taken place.

And the other the other part of the investigation is Massey Energy itself, the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine. We're told that the litany of violations that this company has amassed over the years may lead to potential criminal negligence as investigators look into that. Again, we've heard unsubstantiated claims about actions on the part of Massey Energy; for example, to bridge methane monitors so that they're not working properly.

We're getting all this, by the way, from sources who are close to the investigation. The FBI is declining to comment, and they won't confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

INSKEEP: And just to be fair, to underline this, you're using words like possible and unsubstantiated, but what you're saying is that federal investigators have found something serious enough that they want to look into this in a criminal probe. Is that...

BERKES: We have to presume that that's the case. Yes. But we don't have any solid information about what the violations, possible violations, may exactly be beyond what I've said.

INSKEEP: So what have the Mine Safety and Health Administration and Massey Energy said?

BERKES: The Mine Safety and Health Administration is aware of our reporting. They haven't reported so far. Massey Energy, in a statement to NPR, says it is not aware of these allegations and it is fully cooperating with any investigations that are taking place.

INSKEEP: You said that it's common to have allegations or suspicions of bribery involving inspectors. But is it common to have a criminal probe after a disaster like this?

BERKES: You know, I've been talking to several mine safety enforcement experts, and they say this is highly unusual. Typically what happens is the Mine Safety and Health Administration itself investigates, and it's many months after a disaster that any possible criminal violations are referred to the U.S. Attorney for consideration and prosecution.

Here we're barely three weeks since the accident and FBI agents are already out in the Cold River Valley here interviewing people. We actually stumbled upon one of those interviews this week. A miner that we were trying to talk to said he couldn't talk because the FBI was there. This is an indication of very serious allegations that might be out there. Again, we don't know exactly what they are, but they've triggered FBI interest. There may be no criminal charges eventually. We'll just have to wait and see.

INSKEEP: NPR's Howard Berkes is in Beckley, West Virginia. Howard, thanks very much for your reporting.

BERKES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And again, Howard is reporting that the deadly mine explosion in West Virginia three weeks ago is now the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

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