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It was a big day yesterday for the families of the 29 mine workers killed last year in that horrific mine explosion in West Virginia. Federal investigators issued their final report and federal prosecutors said they were still considering criminal charges.
The Justice Department also announced the biggest mine disaster settlement ever involving the current owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. But key questions remain unanswered. Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: There was little in the final report of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, that the agency hadn't said before. The Upper Big Branch mine explosion was again blamed on Massey Energy, which was systematic, aggressive and intentional in its failure to keep miners safe, according to investigators.
TONY OPPEGARD: You know, when you read the report it sounds like one of the worst mines in the history of mining.
BERKES: So there's something missing for Tony Oppegard, a former federal mine safety official himself.
OPPEGARD: You have an enforcement agency that had to know that this was an outlaw operation. And they did not use the stringent enforcement tools that they had, which possibly could have prevented the disaster. That's the bottom line.
BERKES: Coal mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin responded this way in a news conference yesterday about the final mine disaster report.
KEVIN STRICKLIN: We did shut the mine down 48 times in the year leading up to the explosion. What we don't have is the ability to say because you received so many orders, we're going to shut you down permanently.
BERKES: But the mine safety agency failed to give the Upper Big Branch mine the increased scrutiny reserved for persistent violators. And it failed to use one of its toughest tools - hauling the mining company into federal court. MSHA is conducting an internal probe of its own possible failures and officials said that report could be several months away. Again, Tony Oppegard.
OPPEGARD: It's hard to imagine that MSHA is going to do a real thorough job, a real critical analysis of itself, given the magnitude of this disaster. I mean it's just human nature. It's going to be hard to point the finger at your co-workers and say that they did far less than they should have or to be completely thorough about it.
BERKES: Assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main was asked about that and he said the agency has been investigating itself after mine disasters since 1989.
JOE MAIN: And I can guarantee you, when you go back and look at those reports, there's been a lot of problems that have been found. And I think when we issue our report, it's going to be one that's going to identify shortcomings that we need to address.
BERKES: Still, there's concern about whether these internal investigations are rigorous enough. There's also concern about whether an ongoing criminal investigation will result in charges, convictions and jail time for former Massey Energy executives. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin cryptically acknowledged yesterday that his investigation has revealed criminal conduct. But he wouldn't elaborate. When pressed he said this...
BOOTH GOODWIN: Knowledge is a key element. Intent is a key element. And when it moves up the ladder, all the information doesn't necessarily flow with it. But that being said, Massey was a company that was fairly closely controlled by a reasonably tight group of individuals.
BERKES: This is a very important point to Gene Jones, whose brother Dean, his identical twin, who both looked and talked just like him, died in the Upper Big Branch mine.
GENE JONES: I want to see someone actually go to jail. And show these other coal companies that, listen, if you do wrong, you're going to go to jail. That has to happen.
BERKES: Jones spoke after being briefed about the day's developments. Brothers will continue to die in coal mines, he said, until someone goes to jail.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.
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