MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
A report on the worst mining accident in 40 years aimed harsh words at those responsible for coal mine safety. A team of investigators severely criticizes both Massey Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration for the explosion that killed 29 people in West Virginia last year. Today, investigators briefed the families of the victims on their findings.
Clay Mullins lost his brother Rex at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
Mr. CLAY MULLINS: America needs coal, we need it. But there's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. And at this mine, they done everything wrong.
NORRIS: That's Clay Mullins. NPR's Howard Berkes is in Beckley, West Virginia, and joins now to talk about what went wrong at the Upper Big Branch Mine. And, Howard, first of all, who produced this report and what exactly did they say about Massey Energy, the company that owns that mine?
HOWARD BERKES: The report was produced by an independent investigative team that was appointed by Joe Manchin, who was governor of West Virginia at the time - he's now senator. And this team spent a year alongside state and federal investigators as they conducted more than 200 interviews and they gathered evidence underground.
This team was led by former federal mine safety chief Davitt McAteer, and they did not mince words in their report. Massey Energy, they said, normalized a culture of deviance, putting production and profits before the safety of its own coal miners. This company operated in a profoundly reckless fashion, this report said.
NORRIS: And how exactly did that happen? What did these investigators find?
BERKES: There was a litany of failures - a failure to ventilate the mine properly so that explosive methane gas and explosive coal dust would be harmlessly swept away. There was a failure to keep water sprays working on the massive cutting tool so that sparks would be controlled. There was a failure to spread crushed limestone throughout the mine. That limestone neutralizes the explosive power of coal dust. And there's actually a lot more.
But it all adds up to the very things that triggered this explosion and then fed a series of explosions that coursed through the mine more than two miles.
NORRIS: And as we said, this investigation also cast a harsh light on the Mine Safety and Health Administration. What about the federal regulators?
BERKES: Yeah, this explosion, the investigators said, is proof positive that the Mine Safety Agency failed in its duty as the watchdog for coal miners. The report says the agency failed to see the big picture of these many catastrophic failures that were occurring at the mine. And as we have reported, this agency failed to use its toughest enforcement tools on this mine or any other mine before the explosion - tools it had never used before.
NORRIS: What's the response from the mine safety agency and from Massey Energy?
BERKES: You know, I talked to Assistant Secretary of Labor Joe Main today, and the first thing he tried to do was lay all the blame on Massey Energy. I really pressed him on this point and he finally did accept some responsibility. He did say that the agency has acted much tougher since the explosion, and it has to some degree.
Now, Massey Energy didn't address any of the specific criticisms. The company said it is reviewing the report, but it did revive claims that coal dust was not a factor in the explosion, and this report contradicts that claim with page after page of evidence.
NORRIS: NPR's Howard Berkes is in Beckley, West Virginia as part of an NPR News investigation into the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Howard, thank you very much.
BERKES: You're welcome, Michele.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.