WASHINGTON — An investigative report that details the findings of a year-long probe into the Upper Big Branch mine explosion paints a picture of a rogue coal operation where basic safety measures were routinely flouted and federal regulators did little more than issue citations and walk away.
The 122-page report to West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, written by a panel of independent safety experts, includes interviews with dozens of miners, an examination of the disaster site and a review of thousands of pages of internal and public documents. The panel concluded that the disaster that killed 29 miners was "man-made" and could have been prevented.
The investigation was led by former Mine Safety and Health Administration director J. Davitt McAteer and recommended more than 52 safety reforms. Many of them call for an increased and mandated use of technology to measure, gauge and record safety conditions to reduce human error and short circuit fraudulent behavior.
McAteer and his team placed much of the blame for the disaster, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years, on his former agency.
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"Despite MSHA's considerable authority and resources, its collective knowledge and experience, the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine is proof positive that the agency failed its duty as the watchdog for coal miners," the report said.
One unidentified longtime MSHA official told McAteer's group that managers for Massey Energy, the owner of the mine, fought safety citations so vociferously, it began to shape how federal inspectors viewed their mines and softened their enforcement approach. "Massey trains our inspectors better than we do," the MSHA official is quoted as telling investigators.