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US: FBI Probes Explosion in West Virginia Mine

by Kris Maher and Siobhan HughesWall Street Journal
April 30th, 2010

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting a criminal probe of the deadly explosion at a Massey Energy Co. mine in West Virginia in early April that killed 29 miners, according to people familiar with the matter.

The FBI wants to find out whether certain safety devices and procedures were bypassed or tampered with, among other things, the people said.

Massey Energy said Friday it was aware that FBI investigators were interviewing witnesses and that it would cooperate with the investigation. "Massey has no knowledge of criminal wrongdoing," the company said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to confirm an investigation related to the April 5 accident.

Getty Images

Miner Terry Cooper embraces his wife, Michelle, at a candlelight vigil

Separately, lawyers representing families of miners killed in the accident said Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins had offered a settlement of $3 million to each of a number of families. "My understanding is it's been rejected by everyone, and I think rightly so," said Randolph McGraw, who is representing several families. A Massey spokeswoman said the company "has been having private discussions with family members and out of respect for their privacy will keep them confidential."

Federal regulators have said they believe the Upper Big Branch explosion was caused by high levels of methane, a colorless, odorless gas found naturally in coal seams that can become explosive at high levels. High levels of coal dust, which can lead to bigger explosions, were also believed to be a factor.

Investigators are believed to be looking at whether certain safety devices, such as methane and coal dust monitors and ventilation curtains, were disabled, and are conducting interviews with former and current workers, according to people familiar with the matter. Kevin Stricklin, of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in the days following the accident that it wasn't clear why methane monitors didn't signal a problem and that the monitors should cut the power to mining machines once dangerous concentrations are reached.

J. Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety official who has been appointed by W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin to investigate the accident, said in an interview that he would focus on that question.

Mr. McAteer declined to speculate on whether such tampering took place. But he said that the magnitude of the explosion, including the distance it traveled inside the mine to kill many miners instantly, indicated the accident was an "engineering failure" rather than a lapse committed by one or two miners.

Massey Chief Executive Don Blankenship said in a recent interview that "there's no issue about any methane monitoring that I'm aware of" at the mine and that "in fact I believe that we carry extra methane monitoring that's not required." Mr. Blankenship said that a "skilled electrician or technician" would be able to disrupt methane monitors, perhaps to keep machinery operating. "I can't sit here with certainty and say what thousands of people are doing every day," he said.

Some current and former Massey miners said safety devices, such as methane monitors and ventilation curtains, were disabled at times.

Chuck Nelson, a former miner who worked at a different Massey mine from 1994 to 2000, said the foreman would hang monitors that registered coal dust in the fresh air entry to keep readings of potentially explosive dust low. Mr. Nelson said that in other cases he was told to tuck a dust monitor into his work shirt to keep the readings low. "You had to do these things, or else you didn't have a job," he said.

A current Massey worker, who worked at the Upper Big Branch mine but now works at another Massey mine, said that when ventilation curtains fell to the ground, miners who were under pressure to keep mining coal typically failed to put them back up. "We don't normally do that," said the miner. "There's so much tedious work in making sure the ventilation is right, it's unreal."

Mr. Blankenship dismissed claims of violations. "Any time you have a tragedy of this size, you're going to hear about anything," he said. "I think it's important to hear what the facts are."

Criminal investigations involving coal mining accidents are rare but not without precedent. Criminal charges were filed following a 1989 explosion at a Kentucky mine that killed 10 miners, and also following the 1991 death of two miners at a West Virginia mine.

Two years ago, a Massey subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges, including willful violations of mandatory safety standards resulting in death, after a 2006 fire killed two miners. The company paid $2.5 million in the criminal case and $1.7 million in a civil case. The combined amount was the most paid in a coal mining death, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

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