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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.
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