Massey, Federal Officials Investigated In Mine Blast

The FBI is investigating the circumstances surrounding the coal mine blast in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. Sources say the FBI is looking into potential criminal negligence on the part of Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch coal mine. Sources also say the probe involves allegations of bribery involving the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. A Department of Justice spokeswoman denies the mine safety agency is part of the investigation, however.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A rare criminal probe is underway in the coal fields of West Virginia. As NPR News has been reporting, the FBI is looking into the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine three weeks ago. It's part of our ongoing investigation into the blast that killed 29 people. The worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports from Beckley, West Virginia.

HOWARD BERKES: Sources familiar with the investigation tell NPR that there are basically two threats the FBI is exploring. Potential criminal negligence on the part of Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine, and possible bribery of employees of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that inspects mines and enforces regulations. That's all the detail the sources would provide.

NPR became aware of FBI involvement this week while working on stories in the Coal River Valley where the Upper Big Branch Mine sits. My colleague, Frank Langfitt, walked up the house of a Massey miner, knocked on the door and was politely told the miner couldn't talk because he was in the middle of an interview with an FBI agent and an inspector from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

That seemed odd because the FBI does not typically get involved in mine disaster investigations, according to three former federal mine safety officials. Typically, they all said, the mine safety agency itself investigates and if it finds evidence of possible criminal violations, it refers that evidence to the U.S. attorney.

Tony Oppegard was once a top official at the mine safety agency and was Kentucky's mine safety prosecutor. He told me that an FBI role is extremely rare. Frankly, he told me, he'd never heard of that before. That sent us to people who know about the investigation. The sources are clear the investigation involves the Mine Safety and Health Administration itself, as well as Massey Energy.

The agency has not responded to NPR's repeated request for comment, but another federal law enforcement source insists the probe is not about the mine safety agency. The FBI declined to comment and won't confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. Massey Energy says it has no knowledge of criminal wrongdoing and is cooperating with all agencies that are investigating the tragedy.

Massey has a long record of safety violations and citations at Upper Big Branch at other mines. The mine safety agency has been generally criticized for not being tough enough in enforcement.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

FBI Probes Massey Energy, Regulators In Mine Blast

A section of the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where 29 miners died. i i

The federal inquiry of the April 5 disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., includes possible bribery and criminal negligence, sources say. Matt Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
A section of the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., where 29 miners died.

The federal inquiry of the April 5 disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., includes possible bribery and criminal negligence, sources say.

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia has now resulted in a criminal investigation that involves both mine owner Massey Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, NPR News has learned.

Upper Big Branch is the coal mine in Montcoal, W. Va, where 29 miners died in an explosion April 5.

The FBI is exploring potential criminal negligence on the part of Massey Energy, according to sources familiar with the investigation. The sources also say the probe also includes possible bribery of employees of MSHA, the federal agency that inspects coal and other mines and enforced mining regulations.

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

A federal law enforcement source insists that MSHA is not a focus of the investigation. "This is an investigation about the circumstances surrounding the disaster," the source says. "It is not about [MSHA]."

Massey has been cited repeatedly for violations of federal safety regulations. The company also has injury rates at some of its mines that greatly exceed national rates, according to federal mine safety records.

Unsubstantiated rumors about mine inspectors and other officials receiving payoffs have circulated in coal mine country for decades.

Massey Responds

Massey Energy released a statement Friday regarding NPR's report about the FBI investigation.

In it, the company says, "Massey has no knowledge of criminal wrongdoing.

"It is not uncommon that an accident of the size and scope of [Upper Big Branch] would lead to a comprehensive investigation by relevant law enforcement agencies."

The company says it is cooperating with the investigators and that it "will not tolerate any improper or illegal conduct and will respond aggressively as circumstances warrant."

NPR discovered the federal probe this week when an NPR reporter sought an interview with a coal miner in West Virginia. The miner said he couldn't speak with the reporter because he was being interviewed by an FBI agent and an investigator from MSHA.

The FBI has interviewed nearly two dozen current and former Massey employees in recent days, according to an unnamed federal law enforcement official quoted by The Associated Press.

The FBI declined comment and will neither confirm nor deny that an investigation is ongoing.

In response to the NPR story, Massey issued a statement saying it "has no knowledge of criminal wrongdoing" and is "cooperating with all agencies that are investigating the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine."

MSHA has not responded to NPR's repeated requests for comment.

"I would think that for the FBI to be involved, there has to be concrete evidence," says Tony Oppegard, a former senior official in MSHA and a former mine safety prosecutor for the state of Kentucky.

Oppegard says FBI involvement in a mine accident investigation "is extremely rare. Frankly, I've never heard of it before."

"This is obviously very disturbing, sad and outrageous if true," says Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News. "People rely on MSHA inspectors to do the right thing, to help keep them safe."

Oppegard says word of the investigation will unfairly taint all mine inspectors, even though bribery prosecutions are rare. "It's going to be devastating to the relationship between miners and mine inspectors," he says.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.