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Few people are spared by an independent investigation of a mine disaster. An explosion and fire killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia. Now the independent examination blames both the mine owner, Massey Energy, and government regulators.
NPR's Howard Berkes reports from Beckley, West Virginia.
HOWARD BERKES: The report and the investigators who wrote it do not mince words. This is Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief.
Mr. DAVITT MCATEER (Mine Safety Expert): Was Massey a rogue operation? You have to look at the record and you have to say, I don't know how you could have assembled a worst record than they had assembled in the last several years.
BERKES: McAteer led an independent team of investigators appointed last year by the governor of West Virginia at the time. And his team found that Massey Energy alone is not to blame.
Mr. MCATEER: When an explosion of this magnitude occurs, the federal agency has responsibility. That's what their job is. The state agency has responsibility. They did not protect, or help protect, these miners.
BERKES: A spokeswoman for West Virginia's mine safety agency declined to respond to direct questions about its role. McAteer said the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to apply its toughest enforcement tools against a coal mine and company with persistent and documented safety failures. When asked about that directly, assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main tried to shift blame to Massey Energy.
Mr. JOE MAIN (MSHA): There is a clear message in that report about a mine operator that failed to carry out its responsibilities to implement systems at the mine to protect those miners.
BERKES: Actually, the report also clearly says this: The disaster is proof positive that the Federal Mine Safety Agency, or MSHA, failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners. Throwing that back at Joe Main and chief agency lawyer Patricia Smith drew this concession of sorts.
Ms. PATRICIA SMITH (MSHA): MSHA historically could have done better and MSHA is doing better now. We've learned a lot of lessons from UBB and we're taking those lessons and we're putting them into action.
BERKES: A spokesman for Massey Energy says the company needs time to digest the report, but did reject one key finding, which blamed excessive and explosive coal dust for the massive blast that traveled more than two miles and took 29 lives. The company has yet to produce evidence showing coal dust was not a factor.
Gary Quarles is a Massey miner who lost his son in the disaster.
Mr. GARY QUARLES (Coal Miner): What I want to see from Massey, they've got to step up and say we are responsible. That is - they've got to do this.
BERKES: Quarles went to work at Upper Big Branch the day of the explosion and he went home that night, he says. But his son did not. The weekend before, the report says, Quarles' son told friends he was afraid something bad was about to happen.
Clay Mullins is another coal miner and his brother Rex was one of the first miners hit by the blast.
Mr. CLAY MULLINS (Coal Miner): I blame Massey, first of all, for not providing the men with a safe workplace. And I still fault MSHA and the state for not holding up their end to make sure that Massey provides the men with a safe workplace.
BERKES: Mullins and Quarles were among the families of the victims briefed by the McAteer team about their report and some said nothing will change in coal mines until company executives go to jail when miners die.
Again, Clay Mullins.
Mr. MULLINS: I want to see the criminal end of it. I want to see men pay. They didn't care. All they cared was getting that lump precious lump of coal out.
BERKES: The McAteer report concludes that Massey Energy put production and profits before safety despite repeated company claims to the contrary. Massey did not respond to that assertion in its statement about the report. A federal criminal investigation continues. So far two low-level Massey managers have been charged but not for anything that led to the nation's worst mining disaster in 40 years.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia.
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