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The federal investigation of last year's coal mine disaster in West Virginia took a new twist today. Investigators say they've discovered internal Massey Energy documents that show the company falsified safety records at its Upper Big Branch mine.
The Labor Department's chief lawyer says the matter has been referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
NPR's Howard Berkes is in Beckley, West Virginia, where investigators presented an of a year-long probe.
HOWARD BERKES: The Mine Safety and Health Administration showed examples of internal Massey Energy documents that noted serious safety problems at the Upper Big Branch mine. But those problems were left off official documents reviewed by federal mine safety inspectors.
Kevin Stricklin is the coal mine safety chief at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Mr. KEVIN STRICKLIN (Cole Mine Safety Chief, Mine Safety and Health Administration): It's not a problem for a mine operator if they want to keep more than one set of books. That's their prerogative. But what they have to do is record the hazards that are associated with any examination underground in the official record book. And we found that wasn't the case here.
BERKES: These are record books kept by foremen underground before and during each coal mining shift. The books note safety hazards and whether corrections were made. They alert miners to danger on later shifts, and they alert federal mine inspectors to safety problems.
Stricklin also says his investigators documented a pattern of intimidation at Upper Big Branch.
Mr. STRICKLIN: Upper management threatened to fire frontline supervisors for not meeting production goals. Safety hazards such as insufficient air were not acceptable excuses for not running coal. A section foreman was fired for delaying production for about an hour to fix ventilation problems. One of the victims was told if you can't go up there to run coal, just bring your bucket outside and go home.
BERKES: That victim of the Upper Big Branch explosion is Dean Jones, a veteran crew boss, who told his supervisors he needed to keep his men out of the mine when extremely weak airflow made explosive concentrations of methane gas possible.
His widow Gina Jones told me last night that Dean resisted the pressure to ignore safety.
Ms. GINA JONES: Because I told him to. I said they don't live your life. You know, they dont care about you. I said you've got family. I said worry about yourself and your men.
BERKES: Massey was absorbed by Alpha Natural Resources a month ago, and an Alpha spokesman says the company is still reviewing all the allegations against Massey.
Alpha boasts a much better attitude toward safety, but NPR has learned and Alpha confirms that two of the Massey managers directly responsible for Upper Big Branch continue to work for Alpha. Jason Whitehead and Chris Blanchard are not Alpha managers, the spokesman says. They're in technical support positions instead.
Clay Mullins is worried more about the mine safety agency itself. Mullins lost his brother Rex at Upper Big Branch.
Mr. CLAY MULLINS: It's MSHA's job and the state's job to enforce the law and make sure that Massey does their job. And all three of them failed at their job. If they had enforced the laws that they had then, we wouldnt be here sitting and talking because this accident would not have happened.
BERKES: Mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin says any possible agency failure is the subject of a separate Labor Department investigation. And that's ongoing.
Stricklin's probe reinforces preliminary conclusions about the cause of the explosion and provides stronger evidence that Massey's own theory is groundless. The company had argued it was a natural disaster and not caused by Massey's failures.
These waves of information were difficult last night for Bobbie Pauley, a coal miner herself, who lost her fiance, Boone Payne, when Upper Big Branch exploded.
Ms. BOBBIE PAULEY (Coal Miner): Because I kept thinking, you know, you've waited over a year. You wanted answers. Tonight you're going to get them. But then another side of me said I don't want to know because it brings it all back, you know, right in your face.
BERKES: And it'll be back again in the fall when the Federal Mine Safety Agency issues a final written report and again if the Justice Department issues indictments. But Bobbie Pauley says she cries every day anyway about losing the man she thought she'd be with the rest of her life.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.
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