Massey Energy blamed for mining blast that killed 29 workers

A wide-ranging investigation into a West Virginia coal mining disaster that killed 29 men last year found that the accident “was manmade and could have been prevented.”

A final report released Thursday on the disaster from a panel of independent experts blames Massey Energy, the operator of the Upper Big Branch mine, for the April 5, 2010, explosion. 

The report is the first major investigation into the causes of the disaster.

“Ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine lies with the management of Massey Energy,” the report says. “The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry standards.”

The disaster was a result of failures of three “basic safety practices,” the report says. These include: “a properly functioning ventilating system, adherence to federal and state rock dusting standards; and proper maintenance of safety features on mine machinery,” according to the report. Rock dusting standards are aimed at keeping explosive coal dust under control.

Massey Energy objected to some of the report’s findings Thursday, arguing the explosion was a result of circumstances beyond the company’s control. The explosion, Massey general counsel Shane Harvey said, was caused by a surge in “methane-rich natural gas,” not coal dust. 

“We believe that the explosion was caused by a massive inundation of methane-rich natural gas,” Harvey said in a statement. “Our experts feel confident that coal dust did not play an important role.”

The investigation was conducted by J. Davitt McAteer, who served as the assistant secretary for the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) during the Clinton administration.

McAteer, who is vice president for sponsored programs at Wheeling-Jesuit University, was tasked with investigating the disaster by then-Gov. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump to hold Nashville rally amid efforts to boost GOP Senate hopeful Voters Dems need aren't impressed by anti-waterboarding showboating Overnight Finance: House rejects farm bill in conservative revolt | NAFTA deal remains elusive as talks drag on | Dodd-Frank rollback set for House vote MORE (D) shortly after the explosion.

Broadly, the report faults inadequate federal and state mining safety regulations — specifically, it criticizes a process under federal and state regulations whereby mine operators are afforded the opportunity to appeal citations and penalties. “Mine operators know they can contest violations and tie them up in litigation for years,” the report says. “They also recognize that by litigating citations, the company stands a good chance of getting the fines reduced to a fraction of the original amount.”

Efforts to pass mine-safety legislation have stalled in Congress.

Shortly following the Upper Big Branch disaster, Democrats in both chambers introduced legislation to bolster the nation's mine-safety rules, including provisions to hike fines for safety hazards; expand whistleblower protections; empower federal investigators to close unsafe mines more easily; and grant regulators subpoena power when investigating mining accidents.

Republicans say the Democratic reforms are too tough on the coal industry and threaten vital jobs in corners of the country already struggling with high unemployment. Critics also say Congress shouldn't adopt new mine-safety protections before the cause of the UBB blast is known with certainty.

Last July, the House measure passed by a partisan vote through the Education and Labor panel, then led by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). But it didn't win the two-thirds majority required to pass a floor vote in December. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerSenate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Overnight Tech: Trump nominates Dem to FCC | Facebook pulls suspected baseball gunman's pages | Uber board member resigns after sexist comment Trump nominates former FCC Dem for another term MORE (D-W.Va.), was never taken up at all.

Earlier this year, MSHA proposed new rules making it easier for federal regulators to shutter mines found to show a "pattern" of safety violations. But mine-safety advocates on Capitol Hill, including both Miller and Rockefeller, contend that legislation is still needed to strengthen miner protections further.

Rockefeller and Miller have reintroduced their mine-safety bills in the 112th Congress, though neither piece of legislation has gone anywhere yet.

Miller on Thursday said the report's findings should push Congress to pass mine-safety legislation.

“It’s time to close these loopholes and hold mine owners accountable who operate in a reckless disregard of human life. While Congress continues to be gridlocked by a pay-to-play political system, miners are put in grave danger by allowing the next Upper Big Branch to happen," Miller said in a statement. 

"Voluntary safety programs and self-policing, as the industry is advocating, is not the solution and will only put our nation’s mines back to the dark ages. There is no reason why we cannot act with a sense of urgency on these reasonable and responsible recommendations,” Miller said.

—Mike Lillis contributed to this story.