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Ex-mine official to lead probe of W.Va. blast

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[April 20, 2010]  CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- A former federal mine safety official, who also looked into the deadly 2006 Sago mine disaster, will conduct an independent investigation of the deadliest coal mine explosion since 1970.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said Tuesday he has asked J. Davitt McAteer, who headed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, to independently investigate the explosion that killed 29 miners last week.

McAteer's probe of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine will be independent of separate state and federal investigations, and he will focus on what actions should be taken to prevent such explosions in the future.

"I want a transparent third party, that's not attached in any way, shape or form," Manchin said.

McAteer conducted similar probes of the Sago mine disaster that killed 12 and the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine fire that killed two miners. He told AP he expects to focus on the apparent failure of systems meant to prevent such a disaster: the spraying of powdered rock to dilute explosive coal dust; the venting of methane gas; and safety conditions before miners begin each shift.

Also Tuesday, federal mine safety officials said Upper Big Branch should have received a warning letter in October about a potential pattern of safety violations, but a computer program that screens for violation patterns failed to include eight citations at the mine.

If they had been included, MSHA would have notified the mine and given the operator 90 days to improve safety conditions.

MSHA director Joe Main told AP that the mine had reduced its violations by more than 60 percent anyway and the error didn't have an impact on the tragedy.

Half of the eight citations involved problems with ventilation, according to data provided by MSHA. Those problems were corrected within hours or days of determination, per federal guidelines.

Highly explosive methane is believed to have been a factor in the deadly blast.

The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and two other lawmakers called for an immediate investigation by the Labor Department's inspector general into the computer error. Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., joined Miller in calling the mistake "deeply disturbing."

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama was to meet Thursday with federal labor and mine safety officials to discuss preliminarily what may have caused the blast. Investigators still don't know what ignited the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in four decades, though officials believe methane was involved.

Congress is also convening hearings later this month to look at weaknesses in federal mine safety legislation and whether the system encourages operators to challenge safety violations and delay penalties.

Since the April 5 explosion, details have emerged about an extensive list of safety violations at the mine. The company has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up.

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According to an Associated Press review of records from MSHA, Richmond, Va.-based Massey frequently sidesteps hefty fines by aggressively contesting violations, an increasingly common industry tactic since the Sago mine disaster led to stiffer penalties.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship has defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts profits ahead of safety. He has said the number of violations at Upper Big Branch are about the same as the national average.

Manchin said he wanted state regulators to target problems involving methane gas, coal dust levels, poor ventilation and electrical issues.

"Right now, we need to make sure that the rules are being complied with. I can't sit back and assume anymore," Manchin said.

The governor said he wanted to review state law to make sure West Virginia officials are able to shut down unsafe mines and order immediate fixes without any delays.

Records show the mine was cited for 44 violations during its most recent state inspection April 1, most of them involving electrical problems and ventilation.

West Virginia is the second largest coal producing state in the nation and disasters in its coalfields have shaped U.S. coal mine safety laws.

The deaths at the Sago and Aracoma mines brought about a series of safety reforms, but as coal companies spent more than $1 billion on new measures, the equipment did nothing to save the lives of those at Upper Big Branch.

The problem was the reforms were focused almost exclusively on sustaining trapped miners long enough to rescue them, not on preventing explosions.

[Associated Press; By LAWRENCE MESSINA and TIM HUBER]

Associated Press writer Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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