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Mine probe delayed as political pressure grows

For updates, check our Coal Tattoo blog.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Investigators may not be able to get a look inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine for another two weeks, and interviews with witnesses aren't likely to start until after that, officials said Wednesday.

Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said officials need more time to repair the mine's ventilation system, which was damaged by the explosion. Once investigators get into the mine, they need to map the entire underground mine to record the damage and try to pinpoint the origin of last week's deadly explosion.

"That will take months," Wooten said.

A week after the April 5 explosion that claimed 29 lives, state and federal regulators were still plotting out plans for what will be one of the largest and most complex mining investigations in years.

At the same time, political pressure continued to build on state officials and on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

U.S. House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., on Wednesday afternoon released a list of what he called "dangerous mines," those that escaped tougher MSHA enforcement by appealing large numbers of citations and tying regulators up in court.

"Mine operators who game the system to avoid tougher scrutiny must be held accountable," Miller said. The complete list, which includes 22 West Virginia mines, is available online at http://edlabor.house.gov/documents/111/pdf/publications/missedPPOV.pdf .

And MSHA's investigation team for the Upper Big Branch Mine came under scrutiny, with media reports focusing on top investigator Norman Page's ties to the May 2006 explosion that killed five miners.

Page was MSHA's district manager in eastern Kentucky when the Darby Disaster occurred, and an internal review published by MSHA found, among other things, that inspectors under his supervision overlooked unsafe roof conditions, inadequate ventilation and the operator's failure to conduct pre-shift safety examinations.

The internal review report did not blame MSHA for the deaths, but cited weak supervision by MSHA officials as contributing to overlooked violations at the mine.

MSHA has not commented so far on Page's connections to Darby, but Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said on Sunday, "I believe that we have put the very best people on this, and [MSHA chief] Joe [Main] and I are confident of their expertise, their abilities and their integrity."

In Washington, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to honor the Upper Big Branch miners.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said on the House floor that "generations of these families go into the mines" and the miners "live with the knowledge that there is risk, and they are proud to take that risk to labor in the company of good and loyal friends to earn an honest paycheck in order to provide for their families and themselves."

Rahall added, "That this deadly explosion occurred is infuriatingly, frustratingly heartbreaking and I am determined that we will get to the bottom of it and ensure that steps are taken to prevent a recurrence of this type of explosion."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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