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Report on West Virginia Mine Disaster Faults ‘Reckless’ Management

The ultimate responsibility for the deadliest U.S. mining disaster in 40 years lies with Massey Energy Co., an independent investigator has concluded, calling the company’s operation of the Upper Big Branch mine “profoundly reckless.”

“The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris,” Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who was appointed by West Virginia’s governor to investigate the disaster, says in a report released Thursday.

The massive explosion last year at Upper Big Branch killed 29 miners. McAteer concluded, as other investigators have suspected, that the blast was touched off by sparks from a broken cutting tool that ignited a pocket of methane gas. According to the investigation, that small ignition persisted and, fueled by coal dust, eventually erupted into a fireball.

But in his summary, McAteer focused on the corporate culture at Massey. “A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields,” he said,

operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking. The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been an­ticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a com­pletely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.

McAteer also said Massey had “fallen woefully short” in basic areas of worker safety and contradicted the company’s assertion that it did not place profits over safety. The evidence “strongly suggests otherwise,” he said. Foremen at Upper Big Branch, he noted, were required to fill out daily reports but, “There is nothing on the daily forms that reflects measures of safety.”

Federal and state mining agencies also are investigating the disaster but have yet to complete their reports. Massey told the Charleston Gazette that “we disagree with Davitt’s conclusion that this was an explosion fueled by coal dust. Again, we believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas.” That hewed to the company’s position that the cause of the blast was an unpredictable and natural event that wasn’t related to poor safety practices.

Massey, based in Richmond, Va., agreed in January to be acquired by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. for $7.1 billion.

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